By Will Carlin
It was cold in Arizona in February.
The PGA tour picked The Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona, to host its WGC World Match Play Championships at least partially for the weather; it normally averages about 70 degrees in February.
On Saturday morning of the Championships, however, the golf was delayed for a few hours because of snow. The frosty conditions didn’t suit a number of players, but one of them, Englishman Ian Poulter, was so in love with the match-play format that he barely noticed the weather.
Match play tournaments are one-on-one affairs, where a player earns a point for each hole in which he has bested his opponent (as opposed to stroke play, in which the total number of strokes is counted over four rounds of 18 holes), and some players relish the idea of competing head-to-head instead of playing primarily against the course.
“I have got a lot of confidence,” Poulter said. “I feel comfortable in this format, I have a good match-play record and I hope that continues.”
It did. When play finally began, Poulter ended his round-of-sixteen match early against Tim Clark; with three holes to play, Poulter was five holes ahead, and he was through to the quarterfinals.
By the time he stood on the 13th tee later that afternoon against Steve Strieker, Poulter had carded an eagle and five birdies. Though Strieker also was playing well, Poulter’s play was exceptional, and his dismissal of Strieker brutally efficient.
Poulter’s semifinal opponent would be the defending champion, Hunter Mahan. Such was Poulter’s play during the week, however, that both the betting odds and the locker room chatter put Poulter as the Sunday morning favorite.
And then he lost.
In cold, windy conditions, Poulter missed an eight-footer on the 11th hole to win it, and he lost the next hole, too. The match was effectively over.
“I could have turned the match around on the 11th and 12th, but from that point there was no let-up,” said a clearly disappointed Poulter.
To make matters worse, Poulter was less-than-thrilled at having to play in the third-place playoff a few hours later against Australian Jason Day, who had lost to Matt Kuchar in the other semifinal. Poulter lost again.
The next day, he took to Twitter to express his displeasure:
“I will be honest that 3-4 place match is the least interesting match of the week. No need to play it. Players should be tied for 3rd.
“Ask any players that’s played for 3 or 4-spot. Once you can’t win it the tournament is over. Or they’re lying. Anticlimax. Sorry but true.
“The facts are this and you need to understand nobody cares who finishes 2nd it’s all about winning. Ask a winner that will be there [sic] mindset.”
Many agree with Poulter.
I do not.
I have always felt that consolation draws are where real mental toughness often shines. There are two matches in a squash tournament that always are intriguing to watch: the third-fourth place playoff, and the fifth-sixth place playoff.
If you made it to the semifinals, you usually had a clear chance to win the tournament, and instead you find yourself playing for third.
And if you have made it to the final match of a feed-in consolation draw, that means you probably entered the tournament with high hopes, and instead had to work your way through a series of matches to get to play for fifth.
It takes resilience to win under these conditions, and it takes a certain amount of pride. Many players default or play halfheartedly, often claiming to have the winning mind-set that Poulter describes; in fact, however, it’s usually the opposite.
During the Nationals one year, I had trained well and thought I was poised to win the tournament. But I played badly in my first round, and I lost. I was bitterly disappointed. Even more so, because I had a group of friends who were planning to watch me play the next day. I hated calling them to tell them I had lost.
Being good friends, however, they said they would love to come watch me play my first consolation match at 9am the next morning. It turned out it was going to be an extremely competitive match, for my opponent was a good player who also had been upset in the first round.
I took it seriously, getting up early, getting to the courts early, practicing, riding a stationary bike to warm up. My friends were there, too. My opponent, however, never showed.
Whether he just didn’t feel like playing or he was scared of potentially losing in the first round of the consos of a tournament he thought he could win, he chose not to compete. He bailed.
I count it as a TKO.
I am still proud of the way I worked my way through the draw to fifth place. I played better every match, and I used the momentum to win my next four tournaments, including a real win over the player who no-showed.
When Poulter and Day played for third place, Day started off badly. He looked exhausted for much of the day, and he fired wildly into the desert on three of the first four holes. But things turned around.
“I didn’t play particularly well in the semifinals, and things started poorly in the 3-4, but then I got it going, and I feel really good about my game.”
Tough players know that playing with determination after a disheartening loss is a real badge of honor. And sometimes it can get you back on a roll.
At the Masters, six weeks later, Jason Day led the tournament late on the final day and eventually finished third. “It was just a few little mental errors here and there, but overall, [I’m] very, very happy about the way I played.”
Poulter missed the cut.