MARANA, Ariz. — The trophy Ian Poulter is taking home from the Match Play Championship is called the “Walter Hagen Cup.”
For his first victory on American soil, perhaps that’s only fitting.
Hagen, among golf’s greatest players with 11 majors, was regarded as much for his snappy attire as his record four straight PGA Championships when they were match play.
The Haig would have liked this spunky Englishman.
Dressed in pink on a chilly day in the high desert, Poulter put on a short-game clinic Sunday and led over the final 28 holes on his way to a 4-and-2 victory over Paul Casey in an all-England final at the first World Golf Championship of the year.
The trophy is as stylish as anything in his wardrobe.
With his ninth career victory, and by far the biggest, Poulter moved to a personal-best No. 5 in the world ranking. And as always, he looked good getting there.
“I’ve had an interesting ride from a lot of people’s point of view of how I present myself on the golf course, as opposed to how well I can actually perform,” Poulter said. “This to me is very pleasing to be able to be in that position now. I guess (No.) 5 in the world stands for more than just what I wear on the golf course.”
His short game was second to none.
Poulter seized control in the morning session with two solid chips for birdies, then effectively closed out Casey with a deft pitch up the slope — with mud on his ball, no less — that settled inches away for one last birdie.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Poulter said after closing out Casey with a par on the 34th hole. “I knew I was in great form. I felt comfortable all day on the golf course.”
Casey made sure Poulter didn’t work up too much of a sweat. He struggled at times with his swing in falling behind, and his short game wasn’t good enough to allow him to catch up.
Casey became the first player to lose consecutive years in the championship match.
“Poulter played great,” Casey said. “There were a lot of shots which I wanted to pull off and I didn’t. He did a fantastic job of making putts and keeping the ball in play, and he kept the pressure on. And I got beaten.”
Poulter played only 114 holes all week — only Tiger Woods with 112 holes in 2003 played fewer — and earned US$1.4 million for the biggest check of his career.
Known mostly for what’s in his closet, Poulter quickly is gaining a strong reputation for his prowess in match play. He improved his overall record in the Match Play Championship to 18-7, and was so dominant on the weekend that he trailed for only one hole over the final 50 holes of the tournament.
That came early Sunday morning, when Casey stuffed his approach to 7 feet on the second hole for an eagle that was conceded. Poulter answered immediately with a 5-iron into 8 feet on the third, then took the lead for good at No. 7 when Casey went long and took two chips to reach the green, making bogey.
Casey, who earned $850,000, had the momentum at lunch after winning two of the last four holes to cut Poulter’s lead in half to 2 up at the midway point. That didn’t last long, however, for Poulter opened the afternoon session by winning two straight holes with birdies to restore his lead to 4 up.
Casey tried to make one more charge, winning the ninth hole with a par and the 10th with a 15-foot birdie. Poulter had a 2-up lead with eight holes remaining, momentum on Casey’s side.
But Casey couldn’t make up any ground on the par 5s, and Poulter seized control for good on the 307-yard 15th, where both players drove to the right of the green. Poulter nearly holed his chip for eagle, while Casey pitched just onto the green, and his birdie putt to halve the hole caught the lip.
Casey had to return early Sunday morning just to reach the final.
Resuming his semifinal match that had been suspended by darkness, Casey won with a par after Camilo Villegas hooked his tee shot into the desert. Casey won in 24 holes, the longest match of the week.
Villegas missed a 3-foot par putt Saturday evening that would have put him in the final match. His tee shot Sunday morning was so bad that he let the driver out of his hand, and it bounced into a cactus bush. Even so, his attitude never wavered, and he bounced back in the consolation match to beat Sergio Garcia 5 and 4.
Not only was the championship match between a pair of Englishmen, both were captain’s picks by Nick Faldo for the 2008 Ryder Cup. Poulter went 4-1 at Valhalla, even though Europe lost the cup. The victory moves Poulter to No. 2 on the world points and money points list for Europe.
He did all the right things in match play, mostly with his chipping and putting.
“I would say my short game, certainly this week, has been as good as it’s ever been,” Poulter said. “The last 12 months, it’s been up there with the best of them.”