Anything can happen--and usually does--during match play, which is one reason why last week's Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., was so entertaining. But in the end this tournament always follows the same simple formula: It's not about who is playing; it's about how they're playing. This year's championship, therefore, was a success despite the small galleries and the early exits by the top-ranked players. David Toms saw to that.
After getting past Richard Green one up in the opening round, Toms took out some of the hottest players in the game, starting with Mark Hensby, who had six birdies in 12 holes in his 7-and-6 rout of Stephen Ames in his opener. In the third round Toms dominated Phil Mickelson, his former Ryder Cup partner and a two-time winner this season, 4 and 2--"I like playing with him a lot more than playing against him," Mickelson would say--and then in the quarterfinals drilled Adam Scott, who had snagged the unofficial victory at the rain-shortened Nissan Open the week before, 2 and 1. Toms demoralized Ian Poulter of England, who played the next-best golf of anyone in the field, 3 and 2 in a brilliant semifinal.
The final, against Chris DiMarco, pitted Toms's flawless technique against DiMarco's considerable grit. Toms has always had a special swing--"He's the best ball striker on Tour," says fellow pro Paul Azinger--and this time technique won big. Toms was 9 up midway through the second 18 of the 36-hole final and won by a record margin, 6 and 5.
Despite the lopsided scores, Toms's play was captivating enough to make the matches memorable. Against Poulter, Toms put together a stunning stretch of golf. He hit eight approach shots inside 12 feet, five of those inside six. He birdied the 9th after knocking a five-wood shot close, holed a nine-iron for eagle at the 10th, then hit another five-wood to two feet for a second straight eagle at the par-5 11th. On the 9th through 16th holes, he played approach shots that covered a cumulative 1,303 yards. The total distance of those shots from the hole: 43 feet, eight inches. "I was doing O.K. until [Toms] went mad for a spell in the middle of the round," Poulter said. "When someone is holing second shots and making 3s on par-5s, there's not a lot I can do about it."
Toms was nearly as good against DiMarco, making five birdies on the first six holes of the back nine during the morning 18. "I've never seen anything like this, especially his stretch on Saturday," said Scott Gneiser, who has caddied for Toms in 10 of his 11 Tour victories. "Then he did it again [on Sunday]. David was in the zone all week."
The sidebars to Toms's lead story made for some good reading too. Vijay Singh, the No. 1 player in the world, was dumped 3 and 2 in the second round by 51-year-old Jay Haas, who refuses to seek refuge on the Champions tour. You had a feeling it might be Haas's day right from the start. On the par-4 1st hole he played a shot out of the heavy, wet rough that skipped off a pond and onto the fairway, 60 yards from the green. From there he
pitched on and holed a 15-footer to halve the hole. "Just say I lost," a chagrined Singh told the reporters who chased him from the 16th green to the clubhouse.
There was a bit of comic relief on Saturday, when Colin Byrne, Retief Goosen's looper, climbed a tree beside the 8th fairway in search of the Goose's egg during Goosen's 2-and-1 loss to DiMarco in the semis. Byrne shook out one Titleist but not the one that belonged to Goosen, who had to declare his ball lost. Rather than walking back to the tee to reload, Goosen conceded the hole and lost his momentum. DiMarco, who was 3 down after the first three holes, lit up the back nine with four birdies.
The weather had a major impact on the event. The heavy rains that have hammered Southern California for the last month left the La Costa course, which is barely above sea level, with several new water hazards. The water swallowed up so much of the fairway on the 467-yard 9th, a tough par-4, that the hole was shortened to a par-3 for the first two days. (USGA members who saw this on TV ran screaming from their sets.)
toms was a rising star when he held off Mickelson to win the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, but he took a step backward when he missed the start of the 2004 season while recovering from wrist surgery. When he's on, Toms can play with anyone--remember his runaway victory in the 2003 Wachovia Championship in Charlotte during which he took an 8 on the final hole and still won? "I feel as if I can be a top 10 player in the world if I'm playing well," he said last week. "As far as a top five player, I feel as if I have limitations. There are a handful of guys who are simply better than I am." No one was better than Toms last week.
How long his hot streak lasts may be determined by his left wrist, which is beset by arthritis. "Arthritis is in my family," Toms says. "When I was growing up, my grandma had to soak her hands in hot wax every night. My dad's fingers had knobs all over from arthritis. I don't know if I'll ever be 100 percent."
Toms played so well on Sunday that an official driving a cart loaded with the Match Play trophy and a large wooden podium for the winner's ceremony began riding along behind Toms and DiMarco when they reached the 27th hole because the match could've ended there. DiMarco birdied that hole and the first three on the back nine to stay alive. The podium and trophy were finally unloaded at the 31st after a Toms birdie.
During the ceremony Toms was carefully handed the handsome trophy, which comes in three pieces--base, cup and lid--and asked to pose for photos. "Don't ask me to lift it over my head," Toms said, joking. The trophy was the only thing he didn't elevate at La Costa.