Friday, 22 February 2013

1987: Suntory World Matchplay

If you've ever taken the time to read any of my past blogs, you may be of the opinion that this particular blogger doesn't particularly like much about sport in the 21st century. This couldn't be further from the truth. Admittedly I am an child of the eighties, and I will bang on for hours about anything and everything about sport in this decade (as you may be aware), but give me a decent sporting event now and I am still as absorbed and transfixed as I was in my younger days. One example of this is the WGC Match Play Championship in Arizona. The top players in the world of golf, going head-to-head in a form of the game that I have always loved, makes compelling viewing in my opinion, and starts to give me the urge to get back out on the course after weeks of bottling it due to the wintry conditions in England.

Obviously though, I do have to get this back to the eighties, and as I am watching the multi-million dollar event in Arizona, my thoughts do drift back to the premier matchplay event of my childhood: the World Matchplay at Wentworth. Sponsored by Suntory throughout the eighties, the event had grown and grown from its early beginnings in 1964, and was a well-loved and cherished fixture at the end of the European golfing season. The tournament field was selected via invites, and a list of some of the winners up to the year relating to this blog, reads like a who's who of golfing legends: Palmer, Player, Charles, Nicklaus, Norman and Ballesteros. One thing missing from the history of the tournament however was a British winner. With four Brits in the field of twelve, there was every chance that the duck would be broken in 1987, especially given some of the names involved.

For Nick Faldo, 1987 proved to be the year that fully justified the decision he had taken in the mid-eighties to remodel his swing completely. The breakthrough came at the Spanish Open in May, Faldo's first European tour win in three years, yet it was to be his Open Championship win at Muirfield that would confirm to us all that Faldo and his new swing were the real deal. Another Brit enjoying a great year was Wales' Ian Woosnam. With four wins on the European Tour, Woosnam was well on the way to winning the Order of Merit, in a year that would also see him win the Sun City Million Dollar challenge, and the World Cup with David Llewellyn. Scotland's Sandy Lyle arrived at Wentworth on the back of a German Masters win in Stuttgart, and had earlier in the year become the first non-American to win the prestigious Tournament Players Championship. Completing the British line-up was Howard Clark, a two-time winner in Europe that season, and along with Faldo, Woosnam and Lyle, four of five players in Surrey that had recently been part of the first European team to win the Ryder Cup in America.

The fifth member of the victorious Europeans was the legendary Seve Ballesteros. Four-time winner of the World Matchplay, Seve was installed as the 3/1 favourite for the event, even though he was unseeded for the tournament; unseeded players were at a slight disadvantage of having an extra day on the course, and with the 36 hole matches, this could mean a potential eight rounds in four days. The four seeded players - Faldo, US Open winner Scott Simpson, US Masters champion Larry Mize, and the World Matchplay holder Greg Norman - were given a bye to the quarter finals, the organisers obviously giving preferential treatment to major winners and the reigning champion. Of the other unseeded players, Mark McNulty of Zimbabwe was second only to Woosnam in the Order of Merit come the end of the season, and Japan's Katsunari Takahashi was included due to his win at the Japanese Matchplay. Two little-known Americans - Sam Randolph and David Ishii - completed the line-up, neither expected to make it past their first round challenges of Woosnam and Lyle respectively.

The Europeans would not have it all their own way when play started on a chilly and damp Thursday October 15. Both Lyle and Woosnam would go to lunch trailing, Lyle four-down to Ishii, and Woosnam one-down against Randolph. Woosnam would enjoy a huge slice of luck though playing the first hole of his second round, his approach shot flying into the gallery, ricocheting on to the green, and ending up just six-feet from the hole. "If it hadn't hit someone I would've been playing my next shot from the second tee," admitted Woosnam, who then rubbed salt into the Randolph's wounds by sinking the putt to square his match. The Welshman, suffering from a flu bug, took advantage of his break, ending the day four-up with six to play. Lyle also rallied, birdieing five of the next twelve holes to level his match overnight, thankful that he was now back in his match: "At least I've made a game of it," sighed a relieved Lyle. Ballesteros was in superb form, firing eleven birdies at Takahashi, but still only finding himself two-up after 30 holes. Howard Clark was struggling however, two-down to McNulty, after seeing a three-hole lead evaporate.

You may have noticed that the first day was incomplete. This was due to a deluge of rain arriving at the West Course, or "the Wet course at Wetworth" as the BBC's Harry Carpenter called it. Ballesteros for one was unhappy with the conditions: "It's too late in the year to play in England," bemoaned the Spaniard, any amateur who had ever thinned a shot on a cold autumn morning in Britain nodding in agreement. Bad weather in England is not as unexpected as, say snow in Arizona, but what followed overnight was. The Great Storm of 1987 arrived, lashing the southern counties of England with winds of up to 80mph, leading to the deaths of at least 18 people (exact figures are hard to come by). Weatherman Michael Fish may have taken a lot of stick at the time and since - rightly or wrongly - but the devastation caused by such a storm was frightening.

The aftermath of the storm obviously played havoc with the schedule of the event. Ballesteros had to walk a mile to the club due to the nearby roads being obstructed with fallen trees, describing his route through bushes and the still falling branches as "like Vietnam without the guns", and adding frankly that the scenes were scary. After a seven hour delay, Seve saw off the challenge of Takahashi, winning 4 and 2, although the delay meant that the final would now be put back to the Monday. Lyle got through by the skin of his teeth, defeating Ishii on the third extra hole, Woosnam beat Randolph 4 and 3, and McNulty prevented the European clean sweep by seeing off Howard Clark 2 and 1. With the four seeded players now joining the action on the Saturday, a number of mouth watering ties lay ahead.

On a day where all four seeds were sent crashing out, the pick of the matches was undoubtedly the Woosnam-Faldo clash. All square after 35 holes, Woosnam's birdie on the last was decisive, setting up a semi-final with Ballesteros, who easily dismissed Scott Simpson 5 and 4. After his first round struggles, Lyle was much more efficient in his quarter final, demolishing Larry Mize 7 and 6, thus completing a bad few weeks for American golf. Mark McNulty pulled off the genuine shock of the round, beating Greg Norman one-up to continue his superb run of form in the last twelve months.

The semi-finals were both classics, nail biting tussles that would go the distance, and in the case of Lyle and McNulty, go even further. Woosnam looked like he had blown his opportunity, as some Seve magic appeared to have rescued the match from nowhere. Three-down with only six to play, Ballesteros played as only Seve could, bringing the match back to all-square as the players teed off on the last. Momentum was striding down the fairway with Ballesteros, but then it did a runner; Seve's decision to hit a driver for his second shot would prove costly, the resulting visit to the woods leading to only a par five, and giving Woosnam a chance from six-feet to seal a final berth. Woosnam sunk the putt, reaching his first final and taking more years off his life in the process: "I didn't think anything could be more nerve-wracking than the quarter final against Nick Faldo, but this was worse." The World Matchplay would finally have a British winner after Lyle joined Woosnam in the final, his comeback against McNulty as dramatic as Ballesteros' had been earlier. Three-down with only five to play, Lyle managed to peg McNulty back, eventually winning the match on the 39th hole (the second time that week that Lyle had taken 39 steps, as Martin Hardy of the Daily Express commented). "There is going to be a British winner at last, and it does not matter which one of us it is," declared Woosnam, although with £75,000 up for grabs, and with Lyle playing in his fourth final, whether this statement was completely heartfelt is debatable.

Come the final, you could have forgiven both players for a drop in quality, due to the intensity and quantity of golf they had played at Wentworth that week. Luckily, this was not the case, as twenty birdies and an eagle between the two Brits testifies. Such was the high standard of the final, that Lyle required a birdie, birdie, eagle finish to see himself go to lunch with a one-hole lead, and when the Scot extended his advantage further to move to two-up after 22, Woosnam needed to dig deep to find the resources within to fightback. Woosnam's battling instincts were again evident, as he gradually worked his way back into the match, and as the pair stood on the 18th tee, the match was level. The final hole had been kind to Woosnam all week, and it would prove so again. Woosnam's 2-iron found the final green, whereas Lyle's approach ended up bunkered, and when Lyle failed to get up and down, missing a fifteen-foot birdie putt, for the third day in succession Woosnam stood over a putt for the match. On sinking the six-footer, Woosnam punched the air in delight. His almost perfect year had just got that little bit better.

Woosnam's estimated total of 32-under-par for his four matches was a new championship record, beating the record set by Lyle in the previous year. At the conclusion of the championship, the tributes flooded in for the Welshman. Ballesteros - who had won the third-fourth play-off against McNulty - jokingly turned to Woosnam and said: "If you ever grow up, you will a hell of a player," with Lyle adding a note of caution: "If he does grow up, he'll hit the ball 2000 yards." Woosnam, who was now setting his sights on becoming world number one, summed up his season aptly: "It's been a fantastic year for me - I must have been a good boy and this is the biggest title I have ever won." Proof, if it was needed, just how well regarded the World Matchplay championship was at the time, certainly from a European point of view.

Of course nothing ever lasts forever. The introduction of the very tournament that I was praising at the start of this blog hit the World Matchplay championship hard, and as the years progressed, more and more invites were declined, and the event began to look a little dated and sad. The move to Spain in 2009, and the change in the scheduling to May in 2011, was intended to give the event a boost, but time will tell if the tournament can ever return to the status it held in the past. It would be a shame if this once great occasion is lost, as many of us at a certain stage in our lives (yes, middle-aged old duffers) look back on the World Matchplay with a great deal of fondness. It is doubtful though as to whether the tournament will ever be restored to former glories, which makes our memories of Wentworth in Autumns past that little more special I think.

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