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Clarke (not Superman) proves he matches up

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2000

Tiger got striped.

We'll get to that.

Match play is the stiff backbone of amateur golf. Head to head. Hole by hole. Total score unapplicable.

It's the way hot-shot collegians play. More voluminously, it's the tournament favorite of we weekend weed whackers.

Throughout history, match play has decided U.S. and British Amateur championships along with most every major non-professional competition.

Oh, yes, the Ryder Cup.

We'll get to that.

Golf's finest pros, in week-after-week combat from Pebble Beach to St. Andrews to Greensboro, use stroke play to determine tournament winners. Some term it medal.

After four rounds, they add up the smacks and see who's taken the fewest. That is how U.S. Opens, Masters, British Opens and PGA Championships are settled, plus just about everything else on all global tours.

Generations ago, the PGA Championship was different. A match-play grinder. From 1916 through 1957, it involved a barrage of one-on-one scrimmages. Walter Hagen was especially adept at such matches, becoming a five-time PGA champ.

In the '50s, when Arnold Palmer's magnetism was mushrooming, the rising muscle of TV networks demanded an extinguishing of tradition. Match play was too unpredictable. TV bosses feared ratings disasters if the hottest names conked out before Saturday and Sunday.

So, for 42 years, PGA Championships have been like all the others. Medal play. Seventy-two holes, then total it up. Golf purists missed match play. Television didn't care. Ratings ruled.

Match play's salvation among the pros would be the Ryder Cup. Tradition, instead of TV, is the strongest hammer in the odd-year golfing wars. In the '90s, competition between the United States and Europe had beautiful, powerful growth.

Euro underdogs from Britain, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Italy became constant, thorny threats to U.S. domination. Even TV viewers in America warmed to mano-a-mano golf.

As a big-money offshoot, World Championship Match Play was born. A pro survives seven rounds undefeated and earns $1-million. Big buckets of cash are rung up each time a player advances.

That said, it's a greedy cinch that last weekend's WCMP television components, ABC and ESPN, quietly pulled for marquee players. Networks would gasp at being served semifinals composed of Bob Estes, Duffy Waldorf, Frank Funk and Dudley Hart. It's still about celebrity.

Over five days at La Costa Resort north of San Diego, it was predominantly sizzle golfers who ruled, despite earlier-than-forecast whippings of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Tom Lehman, Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. Saturday's semifinals had Vegas-like flash.

Tiger Woods against Davis Love.

David Duval versus Darren Clarke.

A gold rush in '00 California, offering the world's No. 1 (Woods), No. 2 (Duval) and No. 4 (Love) players in the semis, plus a chap named Clarke. Tiger put a 5-and-4 licking on Love. Clarke slapped Duval with a 4-and-2 upset.

In many eyes, the Northern Irishman was a monumental shocker. Not really. Two years ago, Clarke led PGA European Tour scoring, averaging 68.8 strokes. Those guys also can play.

Tiger got rolling. It became a whopper weekend. Purists chowed down. Less-gritty golf fans began feeling the charm. Even in the land of earthquakes, Sunday was a championship shaker. Golf's kid king was splattered by a chunky underdog from Royal Portrush. A 4-and-3 knockout.

Belfast toasts a Tiger killer.

Londonderry peacefully celebrates.

Darren? Wasn't he Samantha's husband on Bewitched? Nothing is ever for sure in golf. Even the atomic talents of Woods. He can be outflashed by a less-svelte, less-wealthy, less-famous Clarke. A sweet measure of Euro revenge for last year's Ryder Cup loss in Massachusetts.

No golfer is unbeatable. Ever!

Clarke understands. Even after crushing Woods, he called the 24-year-old American "the world's best by far." Even the best, when not at his best, is vulnerable. Clarke used a blazing putter like a lethal match-play sabre. Woods got skewered.

Match play creates unique passions. A golfer can shoot 68 and lose a match while another fellow muddles through a 77 but somehow wins.

It's just different.

Nobody shoots 65-64 and pulls away to a seven-stroke lead. The most that can produce is two match wins, hoisting you to a dead-even new start in the final 16.

Match play creates unique mind games. Mental finessing. Gamesmanship. Seve Ballesteros was a master of that art. It's best to take on the personality of a gentlemanly assassin.

It's charm, I tell you.

Irish eyes are ... gloating.

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