Poulter hoping for early birdies in the desert dawn
Defending champion done no favours as he is forced to rise at 4.30 for difficult opener with American Cink
Wednesday 23 February 2011
Thanks to the baffling logic of the PGA Tour, Ian Poulter will set out first here at 7.25am today local time trying to avoid staging the shortest defence in the history of the WGC World Match Play. This could be the golfing equivalent of the heavyweight champion knocked out by the first punch as the fans are still queuing for their popcorn.
When this was pointed out to the Englishman yesterday he had the good grace to laugh. "Yeah thanks, I hadn't really thought about it," said Poulter, who plays the former Open champion, Stewart Cink. "I could be on an airplane by mid-afternoon."
Poulter was obviously shocked by the draw and has every right to be put out. If Tiger Woods was the defending champion, could you imagine him being asked to fill the spot usually reserved for those generously described as the lower-profile professionals? "Did I expect to be going out so early?" said Poulter. "No. I mean, defending champion at 7.25am? How many people are going to be through the gates at that time?"
The answer is not many, but this is not about Poulter's ego or even about how cold it will be at that unearthly hour or about how jaded he may be after the shrill of a 4.30am wake-up call. Poulter is a competitor who thrives off the unique atmosphere fostered by match play – as his record in the Ryder Cup and, indeed, this event last year show, when he saw off countryman Paul Casey in the final. "I can't think too much about it as it'll affect me," he said. "I must pretend there are 30,000 lining the fairways. Hopefully, I can win and get a better time on Thursday." Cink, however, is no dud, as the recent Ryder Cups have confirmed. He has all the prerequisites for the head-to-head format, including a steely nerve and a dead-aim putter. The same does not apply to everyone in this field. Lee Westwood, the world No 1, claimed "there are no mugs in the world's top 64". Fair enough. Yet there are a few rattling cups and saucers.
As the 2009 champion here, Henrik Stenson is not one of those and regardless of his world ranking (65), Westwood must guard against being one of the big-name victims on a day which is one of the most exciting on the golfing calendar. His record isn't great in this event – he has never advanced past the second round – which as Rory McIlroy points out is a mystery. Westwood has everything needed to add a WGC crown to the No 1 tag he wears so proudly.
But there isn't just Westwood and Poulter for the UK to cheer through the five rounds leading to Sunday afternoon's 18-hole final. Of the top 12 seeds, six come from Great Britain and Northern Ireland – a remarkable representation. What chances of another All-England final? "Don't count it out," says Poulter. "It wouldn't surprise me at all to see something similar happening this year, with the Europeans players so strong in the rankings," he said. "But in this format, things change very quickly. It could be an all-Japanese final."
The American networks would love that. As ever, the executives will be praying Woods survives until at least the weekend as he sets out on the latest chapter of "Reinvention of an Icon". The word is that Woods believes the new swing he has created under Sean Foley has "clicked" and at 14-1 he might represent absurd value to win for the first time in 15 months and 17 tournaments.
It's all a bit ominous for Thomas Bjorn, who will face Woods in the TV-friendly time of 11.45am. But then, the Dane is not exactly doing cartwheels at the prospect, despite Woods' on-course slump since his off-course downfall. Bjorn staged his own sporting resurrection in Qatar three weeks ago and might be expected to enter this nothing-to-lose contest chomping at the bit. Not Bjorn.
"I don't want to stand here and say, 'This is a great time to be playing him' – I don't think there is any good time to be playing him," said Bjorn. "Tiger's got a lot of things he wants to prove at the moment. He wants to prove he's on his way back to his best. So he'll be up for the first round. That's where he doesn't want to go out."
Bjorn has enjoyed some fine battles with Woods, not least when they went head-to-head over all four rounds at the Dubai Desert Classic a decade ago. Bjorn prevailed on that occasion, but on others was left open-mouthed by the brilliance of his playing partner. For instance, at the 2000 US Open, when he played with him on the Saturday when Woods was on his way to his record 15-stroke triumph.
"I've played with him when he was absolutely at his best and he's still got that inside of him," said Bjorn. "Whenever that comes out, he will be off again – and that could be tomorrow. Lee's No 1 in the world – deservingly so – but at any given time, Tiger's the player you don't want to play. You've got to have your day to beat him, but most times, he'll beat you. So, why even stand here and say anything different? I'm going to try to play my golf. And that's a match for anybody when I play my best."
Selected tee-off times (GMT; players US unless stated)
2.25pm I Poulter (Eng) v S Cink
3.45pm G McDowell (NI) v H Slocum
4.05pm P Casey (Eng) v R Green (Aus)
4.45pm R McIlroy (NI) v J Byrd
6.25pm P Mickelson v B Jones (Aus)
6.45pm T Woods v T Bjorn (Den)
7.05pm L Westwood (Eng) v H Stenson (Sw)
7.25pm M Kaymer (Ger) v S-y Noh (S Kor)
7.35pm Z Johnson v J Rose (Eng)
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