Poulter lines up his shot at World Match Play glory

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There was nothing remotely phoney about Ian Poulter’s performance in crushing Sergio Garcia 7&6 here yesterday to reach the final of the WGC World Match Play Championship.

Indeed, there was nothing remotely stage-managed about the exchange of views between Poulter and Garcia after they shook hands on the 12th green.

Apparently, there was some ill-feeling over a complex line-of-sight ruling on the seventh with Garcia saying afterwards: “He’ll have to live to with it.” For his part, Poulter was not at all bothered. Neither should he be - he was blameless. Saying that, there was some question of whether the officials were for making the semi-finallists play through a rainstorm for 45 minutes of play. Yet in the end it blew over and the desert sun re-emerged. Yes, the golf world kept on turning at Dove Mountain yesterday.

The real world, that is; light years away from Friday’s bizarre Tiger Woods TV statement which stopped the planet in its tracks and led to a split straight down its axis concerning the sincerity, or otherwise, of his contrition. The trouble is, with Woods not around the golf world is a rather small world. And looking at the sparse galleries here it happens to be a small world lacking atmosphere.

But it is palpably not short of quality and it would be a real shame if Britain did not at least direct part of its focus from the Woods circus to recognise the achievements of Poulter - and others - at the Match Play. In the 11 seasons since the “world” events were first incepted, England has yet to lift a WGC crown. But here as Poulter marched into today’s 36-hole shootout that void seemed more breachable than ever. But it could get even better just after the sun rises this morning.

Paul Casey will make it an all-English final if can see off Camilo Villegas when their semi-final resumes. The pair staged an epic battle going to the fifth sudden death hole before the dark closed in. Casey must have believed his challenge was over as the Columbian stood over a three-footer on that 23rd hole. But Villegas missed and Casey has another chance. If he or Poulter do prevail this evening then it would be England's most prestigious success since Nick Faldo last won the Masters 14 years ago. That should grasp a few headlines off you know who…

What a week it has been for Britain, what with Oliver Wilson also advancing to the quarter-final (the Mansfield man falling to Garcia yesterday morning 4&3). Conversely, this was the first time in 12 stagings of the Match Play that America was not represented in the last four. Seeing as they came into this 64-man field with 20 players this has been some capitulation. If anyone is wondering why the PGA Tour so readily acceded to the Woods request to use their headquarters on a Friday and, therefore, so totally eclipse the third day of one of the calendars most high-profile events, then there is the explanation. Phil Mickelson, notwithstanding, American golf needs Woods. That’s the real reason why the Jacksonville address was truly such an excruciating spectacle.

As sporting commentators across the globe take leave from their stations to become behavoural experts the one question with which sport should remain obsessed went bafflingly under-examined. When will Tiger Woods return? In his mea culpa – or as the Woods camp might have it, “the media culpa” - he gave no answer and perhaps that is why the spotlight has concentrated on the frankly irrelevant argument of whether he is really sorry or not. Yet Woods did give some indication of the vagueness of his schedule. “I do plan to return to golf one day - I just don't know when that day will be,” he said.

Woods does not rule out his comeback happening this year. The “Brand Tiger” cynics are somehow certain that he will; but a former coach who knows him better than most, and infinitely better than some, sees it differently. “I don’t think Tiger will play this year,” said Butch Harmon.

“I don't think any of us should expect to see him on a golf course any time soon because mentally he’s hurting and emotionally I don't think he'll be there,” added Harmon, who led Woods to his first eight majors and now mentors Mickelson. “I have nothing to base that on other than I think it would be very difficult if he is sincere about this process of healing and getting to the roots of his problem. Rehab takes a long time. It takes a lot of perseverance. It takes a lot of soul-searching. It just doesn't end in a month. Whether he plays again this year remains to be seen. But I do not think we should be surprised if he doesn't.”

Surprised, no. Concerned, yes. Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner who sat so humbly in that confessional front row (three down from Woods’s mother and four down from the Nike chief executive), was asked afterwards about the financial implications of the seemingly increased “indefiniteness” of the Tiger leave and after first claiming “the PGA Tour has not been significantly impacted in a negative way” provided this more realistic assessment. “He does increase significantly the number of people that watch on television. And that plays into our long-term relationships with our television partners and the value of television rights.”

One does not need to be an economic expert to work out the rest. No doubt the interest in golf will reach unprecedented levels if and when Tiger does return and any newly-acquired vulnerability/humility on his behalf will only add to the frenzy. But how long will it hang around if he does not prove to be the competitor he was? Another imponderable to keep the overlords at wake at night until the next announcement. Let us just pray it follows a more traditional script.

All of which was of absolutely no concern to Poulter. He has been in a zone of his own in Arizona this week, purposefully blanking the Tiger saga. Yesterday he was a in a league of his own, particularly when brushing aside the Spaniard having inched out the Thai Thonchai Jaidee in the morning quarter-finals. He is now virtually certain to qualify for the Ryder Cup team and will enter the world’s top six tomorrow, regardless of today’s result. Remember how they all laughed when Poulter predicted he would rise to world No 2? For varying reasons, that can no longer be viewed as golf’s most ridiculous statement.