Graeme McDowell knows he has his work cut out when he takes on friend and stablemate Shane Lowry in the last 16 of the WGC-Accenture Match Play today.
Weather permitting, the Irish duo are scheduled to tee it up on the first at Dove Mountain at 7.35am in a dawn duel that will earn the winner and afternoon showdown with Bubba Watson - the only member of the world’s top 10 to survive this far - or Australian Jason Day.
On paper, the former US Open champion and Ryder Cup hero s the clear favourite to see off his 25-year old friend and deny him the run to the semi-finals he needs to break into the world’s top 50 this weekend.
A leap into the top 50 would earne Lowry a start in the forthcoming WGC-Cadillac Championship and leave him on the verge of a Masters debut.
The 33-year old from Portrush has nothing but respect for the affable Clara lad, who has shown his love for the big stage time and again.
“I always think that Shane has got three or four of the qualities that are required to be a great player,” McDowell said thoughtfully. “I think he drives the ball well, he’s got a phenomenal short game, and he’s got guts.
“I really feel like he’s got those three qualities, and he always has had them. It never surprises me when he does things like this on the biggest stage. I think he’s a very quality player and he’s certainly one to look out for in the future. I just hope he doesn’t go crazy on me in the morning.”
If Lowry’s 2009 Irish Open victory as an amateur or last autumn’s Portugal Masters triumph weren’t enough, one only has to look at the way he overcame a shaky start and back nine nerves to dump world number one Rory McIlroy out of the tournament in the first round.
“If Rory didn’t intimidate him, I suppose what chance do I have?” McDowell joked, before revealing that he would have dinner with his opponent again last night. “But you know, it’s it’s going to be a great match. He’s a quality player. We practiced together this week. I took the money in practice. Hopefully I can continue that role tomorrow.”
In truth, McDowell will be a massive obstacle for Lowry. Having lost in the first round in three of his last four starts since the event moved from La Costa to the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, the Portrush man has made a conscious effort to change his tactics this year on a course he plainly doesn’t like.
“I feel like I try to force the issue a little bit too much in match play, try to do things that I wouldn’t generally do in stroke play,” he explained. “I make mistakes. So I’ve tried to stay very patient the last two days and just play the golf course a little bit more, and it seems to have worked.”
The way he kept his patience, bravely making birdie at the 18th to force extra holes against Noren, should serve as a warning to Lowry. When McDowell is in the mood, he is a ferocious competitor.
“It felt good to do that,” McDowell said of his nine iron to four feet at the 18th and the putt that followed. “It’s early in the season. The great thing about this tournament is it gets the back nine on Sunday juices flowing early, early in the season and it’s nice to ask yourself the question a few times and get that confidence from that, really.”
Lowry made six birdies against Pettersson and McDowell is seriously impressed with the abilities of a player who takes his fair share of stick for his aversion to the gym.
“You can never underestimate a guy just by looking at his physical presence,” McDowell said. “I know enough about his game to know that he’s not to be underestimated. Like I say, he’s one to look for for the future. He’s got a lot of great qualities in his game. To come here this week and play his first World Match Play, impressive.”
The second round produced another rash of “shocks”, the biggest of which was Scott Piercy’s 7 and 6 victory over 2011 champion Luke Donald.
The American world number 37 holed a “cut four iron” for an eagle two from 221 yards at the 530-yard fifth to go four up against the English world number three and was seven under when the match ended as the 12th.
“You know, losing sucks and it’s very disappointing,” said Donald, who started double bogey, par, bogey to go three down after three.
Piercy will play world No 16 Steve Stricker, who beat Nick Watney at the 21st while in the bottom half of that bracket, Tim Clark will play 2010 champion Ian Poulter following their wins over Thorborn Olesen and Bo Van Pelt respectively.
Unlike Lowry, Charles Howell III couldn’t follow up on his first round win over top seed Tiger Woods, failing to make a birdie as he lost 6 and 5 to an inspired Gonzalo Fernandez Castaño.
The Spaniard will now take on US Open champion Webb Simpson, who beat Peter Hanson one up with a birdie at the last.
The winner of that one will face Martin Kaymer, who beat Rafael Cabrera Bello 2 and 1, or defending champion Hunter Mahan, who had a 4 and 2 win over South Africa’s Richard Sterne.
Lowry is certainly the most rested player in the Bobby Jones Division and if he beats McDowell he will take on Masters champion Bubba Watson, who need 22 holes to see off Jim Furyk, or Jason Day, who beat Russell Henley with a birdie at the 19th.
If either of the Irishmen emerge unscathed today, they will face serious opposition in Sunday morning’s semi-finals.
Robert Garrigus dusted Louis Oosthuizen 3 and 2 to set up a last 16 match with Fredrik Jacobson, who had a 4 and 3 win over Australia’s Marcus Fraser.
Big hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts repeated last year’s Volvo World Match Play success over Ryder Cup team mate Justin Rose, beating the English world No 6 by 4 and 2 to clinch a third round meeting with Matt Kuchar, who ousted Sergio Garcia by 2 and 1.
The absence of Tiger Woods, McIlroy, Donald, Rose, Oosthuizen and Westwood from the weekend action is bad news for sponsor’s Accenture.
But McDowell believes it shows the strength in depth of golf compared to tennis, where the world’s top four regualry cruise into the semi-finals of every big event.
“It’s the great thing about the game,” McDowell said. “Compared to tennis; tennis is monotonously boring that the top four in the world are unbeatable. When the No. 1 player in the world in tennis plays the No. 64 player in the world, it’s an absolute drumming. It’s not even a game.
“The great thing about golf, the No. 64 player in the world can play against the No. 1 player in the world, as we’ve seen this week, and give him a great game and beat him. He could theoretically beat him easily, and I think we’re beyond surprises in this event especially.
“Golf is a great game. It’s a great game in that it’s a great leveler. Anybody can have a great day and anybody can have a tough day. It’s what makes the game exciting and it’s what makes this game extremely fickle and extremely frustrating…”
As for the event itself and the Tucson venue, McDowell can see why Phil Mickelson has skipped it again.
“It’s a tough one to sit out, but I can understand why you would sit it out. It’s an extremely fickle event. But it’s got to be great TV, as well.
“Would I like to see this event moved? You know, I think the geography of this event is very difficult. You start moving it around the world at this time of the year, it’s difficult. We’re sort of right into the swing of sort of West Coast, across to the Florida Swing. It would be difficult to take this event I think America works for this event just this time of the year.
“Personally I’m not a huge fan of this golf course. It hasn’t been kind to me. It’s esthetically very pleasing, visually looks beautiful on TV, but it’s a golf course that hasn’t suited me too well.
“Until this week, I feel like I’m kind of getting the hang of it now. I’d like to see it moved around a little bit, but I don’t think it works to take it out of the U.S., just Doral is in two weeks’ time and all that stuff. I’d like to see it move around, check out some of the really great courses here in the U.S.”
Today’s tee times (Irish time)
1410 Robert Garrigus vs Fredrik Jacobson
1422 Nicolas Colsaerts vs Matt Kuchar
1434 Shane Lowry vs Graeme McDowell
1446 Bubba Watson vs Jason Day
1410 Scott Piercy vs Steve Stricker
1422 Tim Clark vs Ian Poulter
1434 Gonzalo Fdez-Castano vs Webb Simpson
1446 Martin Kaymer vs Hunter Mahan
(Quarter-finals to follow immediately)