Brian Keogh in Tucson
The parochial nature of American sport emerged as clearly as the desert air at the WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship once Tiger Woods was sent packing by Nick O’Hern in Friday’s third round.
“He's gone and the who's who becomes who's he,” headlined the Arizona Daily Star on Saturday morning as the paper’s columnist lamented a quarter-final line-up that featured “a Swede, a Brit, two South Africans, two Aussies, a Texan and a Canadian who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago.”
No matter then that the Aussie as the reigning US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy or that the Canadian was Stephen Ames, the impressive winner of The Players Championship, the so-called Fifth Major. Or that Justin Rose had beaten Phil Mickelson or that Paul Casey was the HSBC World Match Play champion.
With Chad Campbell's semi-final defeat to Ogilvy, there would be no American interest in the final for the first time since the championship began in 1999. And it showed.
Even with the trifling sum of $1.35 million on the line for the winner, interest in last night’s clash between the US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson was decidedly low key with little or no traffic on Tangerine Road shortly before the 8.10 am start.
With the attendance limited to just 7,000 fans for the final day, just 500 souls braved chilly morning temperatures to get out and watch two of golf’s most exciting players locks horns in matchplay combat. Even the press room was sparsely populated.
The first 18 holes of the scheduled 36 produced a heady mix of eagles (one), birdies (six) and bogeys (seven) before Stenson strode in for lunch with a two hole lead; wraparound shades hiding his determination to win the title and move from eighth to fifth in the Official World Golf Ranking.
With just one American player making it through to the last four - Chad Campbell - even the mighty US networks betrayed their lack of interest in this Championship with ESPN failing to spell Stenson’s first name correctly in their captions, calling his “Henrick” rather than Henrik.
Never mind the fact that Stenson had holed the winning putt in Europe’s record-equalling Ryder Cup win at the K Club last September or held off both Woods and Ernie Els to claim last month’s Dubai Desert Classic.
In fairness to the American media, it was a European colleague who put it to Stenson that he had “come in under the radar” this week.
“Depends on where you’re looking,” Stenson pointed out with a grin. “Depends on where you looking.”
Just last August, Stenson led the US PGA Championship. Yet he fully understands why the great American public forgets so quickly.
“I think America is a big country and golf is big. But I guess to some extent it’s easy to look at the tournaments within the United States and maybe forget a little bit about the rest of the world,” said Stenson, who has taken up membership of the PGA Tour. “I’ve played pretty good for the last two years and made my way up the world rankings. I think just playing over here is going to make me a little bit more familiar for the general golf fan.”
Adrift in the doldrums in 2003, the 30-year-old Swede has sailed on smoothly over the past six months, winning the BMW International in Munich last September and finishing no worse than 18th in the eight tournaments he has played since then to become the leading European in the world rankings.
His power off the tee makes him an intimidating opponent and he showed that straight away in the crisp morning air at The Gallery Golf Club on Dove Mountain when he reduced the 588-yard opening hole to a 350 yard drive, a mid-iron and an eight-foot putt to take a one up lead over Ogilvy.
A conceded birdie at the next put him two up before the 29-year-old Adelaide native clicked into top gear by winning the next four holes on the trot to turn a two hole deficit into a two hole advantage.
If Stenson needed any reminding of the size the task facing him, he got it at the par-five fifth, where Ogilvy hit a 296 yard three wood to just two and a half feet to go up in the match for the first time.
Stenson won the short, par-four seventh with a birdie to get back to one down and then stole the 10th with a sand shot two feet as Ogilvy three-putted from nearly 80 feet.
The Australian had left him approach putt some seven feet short of the hole and his miss there set the tone for the remainder of the first 18 holes of the final.
Three putts at the 11th cost him the chance to regain his lead and it was almost inevitable that Stenson should steal the 12th in classic matchplay fashion by chipping in from 20 feet for a birdie as Ogilvy weighed up a five footer that looked certain to give him the hole.
After Stenson’s chip-in, Ogilvy inevitably missed his putt to go one down and three holes later, Stenson doubled his advantage to two holes with a timely 13-footer for birdie - an advantage he maintained until lunch.