Ryder Cup skipper Jose Maria Olazabal recently described Graeme McDowell as a matchplay “bulldog.” True to form, the Portrush man came back from two down after eight holes and one down with three to play in his opening match at the Volvo World Match Play Championship to beat Swede Robert Karlsson one up thanks to a sublime finish at Finca Cortesín near Marbella.
McDowell said: “I’m very happy with that, one-down with three holes to play against a great player like Robert Karlsson, I feel very fortunate to win. I made a great birdie on 16 and hit probably one of the better 3-woods I’ve hit in a long time into the last.”
McDowell’s putting was poor as he missed the cut in The Players Championship at Sawgrass last week. But after struggling on the greens early in his opening round robin match, three-putting twice early on to go two down after three, he eventually found the pace of the greens and his matchplay mojo.
A hat-trick of birdies from the ninth saw him go from two down to one up and while Karlsson hit back, winning the 14th and 15th in birdie to edge back in front again, McDowell was the stronger man over the last three holes.
A super approach to nine feet at the 16th set up a birdie that squared the match and he then got up and down superbly from a plugged lie in a bunker left of the par-three 17th to remain on level terms before snatching victory with a birdie four at the 18th.
This time it was his long game that did the trick as he hit a sensational three wood approach to 18 feet and two-putted comfortably for a closing birdie four that Karlsson failed to match from around eight feet after bunkering his second.
“Robert played very solid today,” McDowell said. “I was very surprised he missed that putt on the last there. You’re never rooting against someone but I feel very fortunate today.”
The world No 20 pointed to his hat-trick of birdies around the turn as the key to his win and is looking forward to today’s match with Jbe Kurger, the third member of his pool.
“That was big for me,” he said. “I got off to an awful start today. I three-putted 2 and I three-putted 3. I really could not get my speed on the greens going at all. I made nothing. I thankfully managed to birdie 9, 10, 11 to get myself back in the game.
“I thought I was in control and Robert made a great putt on 14. It was great. We don’t get a chance to play match play very often. It gets your attention, and it’s a lot fun and especially when a guy plays solid, you have to play better to beat him…
“I was chatting with my caddie before he hit the putt [on 18] and I was fully accepting of the fact that he might make that putt. A halved match was a good result for me, one-down with three holes to play against a player of Robert Karlsson’s quality, I’ll take that and run. You never want to root against a guy, but he missed that putt, and it’s a great win for me and I feel very, very fortunate to get a point on the board.”
McDowell actually put two points on the board for his win to go to the top of Pool Larson. The 24-man field has been split into eight groups of three players with the top two from each group going through to the last 16 matches on Saturday morning.
“Tomorrow I’ll just be going out trying to win my match and try to get my speed on these greens,” said McDowell, who face Kruger in the afternoon. “They are very fast down the hill and quite slow uphill so you really have to adjust on the greens. I didn’t putt well and I need to putt better if I’m going to compete better this weekend.
“[My game’s] very close. I just need to get a bit of momentum, get myself into the mix coming into the weekend. Match play is a great test. You go out and play a guy like Karlsson who plays as solid as he did today; I had to dig deep coming down the stretch and hit a couple of quality shots and it’s great for the confidence bank.
“I’ve always believed in my good match play. You look at my results in the WGC Match Play and you wouldn’t believe that I’m a good match-play player but I’ve always believed in my match-play ability and it’s all nice to grind out a game like that.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy pressure, but it certainly focuses my attention and I’ve certainly played well under some pressure in the last few years. Like I say I’m a good match-play player and here to do a job this weekend and that was a nice little victory to carve out.”
Defending champion Ian Poulter beat Australia’s John Senden 3 and 2 in the Gary Player group but
US Tour star Brandt Snedeker’s preparations weren’t ideal for his match with Denmark’s Thomas Björn.
The 31-year-old had to tee off with only ten borrowed clubs, with his own set delayed in transit from the States. However, Snedeker was unaffected by the drama and thanks to a driver borrowed from Senden and putter he bought in the pro’s shop he won 5 and 4
“I made key putts for birdie that got the momentum going my way,” Senden said. “Overall it was a great day, considering I started the day with ten clubs in the bag. My bags arrived about the fourth hole, I got the rest of the clubs I thought I might need, and was able to survive after that.”
The battle of the Spaniards went the way of Sergio García, who closed out home favourite Álvaro Quirós 2 and 1 in a low scrappy affair.
England’s Justin Rose - the second seed - birdied the first five holes to set up a 7 and 6 victory against compatriot Robert Rock but top seed Martin Kaymer lost 3 and 2 to Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
Last year’s Masters champion Charl Schwartzel birdied the last to salvage a halved match with Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts while Scot Paul Lawrie celebrated his 500th European Tour appearance with a 2 and 1 win over the in-form Peter Hanson.
Darren Clarke was among the eight player who sat out the first day but will now get to play 36 holes on Friday with a morning game with Rock and an afternoon date with Rose.