The winner invariably sees the contest different to the loser, particularly when the stakes are high. So it was with Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood yesterday after the former had knocked out the latter in the Volvo World Match Play Championship.
Poulter beat his countryman on the 18th after an enthralling battle which saw the pair shoot a 66 and 67 respectively. As Poulter acknowledged, any Westwood frustration was understandable. By his reckoning he was 19-under for the 46 holes he played here this week. "That's match play," said Westwood, before providing a critique of Poulter's golf.
"When you play Ian you just accept that's Ian's game," said Westwood. "You know he's not going to hit it great, but he's going to make a lot of putts and get up and down from everywhere, which was typical Ian today. He just had a few breaks as well."
The crucial "break", in Westwood's opinion, came on the penultimate hole, a short par-three. "He didn't hit a great shot at 17," said Westwood. "He pulled it and it rolled off the bank to around two foot." There were others. "On the 11th he stayed out of the hazard and holed it from off the green for a half," said Westwood. "You know that's the frustrating thing about match play. Sometimes it's not reflective of how the players are playing."
After beating Francesco Molinari on the 18th in the afternoon quarter-final, Poulter defended how he performed against Westwood, although stressed, "I'm not going to get in no tennis match with Lee. I actually played lovely," said Poulter. "I hit three bad shots in the round. Every other shot was lovely. I mean if I had taken my chances in the first six holes I would have been up in my game anyway. Lee didn't take his chances, but he still played great."
Poulter has had his ball-striking prowess questioned before, most notably by the American commentator Johnny Miller. "I'm really not bothered," said Poulter.
Whatever he is – or isn't – nobody would question the size of his heart. Poulter was two-down with four remaining against Molinari, but won the last four holes. This time on the 17th he struck a sweet shot to four feet. Not a bank in sight; just a second prestigious match play title having won the Accenture version in Arizona a year ago. In this morning's semi-final he takes on the surprise package of the week in Nicolas Colsaerts, a Belgium ranked outside the world's top 100. Poulter will be confident but he will know that for one of this afternoon's finalists there will be rather more on the line than merely the £700,000 first prize. Either one of Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer will have a shot to replace Westwood as the world No 1. Donald has to win, Kaymer has to win. So much for the complexities of the rankings system.
Of course, Kaymer and Donald contested the Accenture final in February. Donald prevailed 3&2 to win his first US event in five years, but has a hunch it will be a different German in front of him. "He wasn't at his best in Tucson," he said. Kaymer will likelyhave to be today, despite Donald still suffering the after-effects of a throat infection. The Englishman is already guaranteed his 13th top 10 in the last 14 events and in the match-play columns stretching back to last year's Ryder Cup has now won 13 matches on the spin. An incredible stat in this volatile format.
The world No 2 gave an indication why when shrugging off an indifferent show to birdie two of the last three holes before denying Johan Edfors in sudden death. And in the quarter-finals, he looked more like the Donald of the present when beating Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion, by two holes. Kaymer, himself, was not his usual excellence in the morning, despite seeing off Soren Kjeldsen 3&2, but then turned it on to defeat the local hero Alvaro Quiros by two holes.
Colsaerts' 2&1 victory was actuallythe most comfortable of the afternoon, and was a shock considering it came at the expense of the world No 5, Graeme McDowell. But then, maybe there was a hangover from McDowell's morning win over Rory McIlroy. The Ulster pair are great friends, but barely a word was spoken as McDowell, courtesy of being seven-under through 16 holes, eased through 3&2.
McIlroy was niggle personified reacting to a series of missed putts by throwing his club once and kicking his ball into a bush another time. He also made McDowell tap in three putts under three feet. What is it about match play which creates so much tension? Utterly delicious, isn't it?