|The Cat Caught The Shark After 21 Holes|
|by Martin Olivera|
Eduardo Romero of Argentina beat Greg Norman of Australia
in perhaps the most exciting match of the tournament so far, and
the first and only one to go extra holes after two rounds of competition.
It took 21 holes for Romero, nicknamed "El Gato" -- The Cat -- to
be ahead in the match for only the first -- and also last -- time, sinking a
15-foot birdie putt on the 3rd extra hole -- the par-3 3rd hole -- to close
the match against "The Shark".
It was another day at the Andersen Consulting World Match Play Championship here at the La Costa Resort and Spa, in which top seeded players fell to lower ranked players, leaving the #1 seeded, Tiger Woods, as the only top-10 player still in the tournament. Only three of the top-20 seeded are still in the hunt for the $1 million first prize, with Mickelson (#12) and Couples (#13) joining Woods on the same side of the draw.
Norman had been in control of the match from the beginning. He quickly went 1-up after a birdie on the first hole, and 2-up after Romero bogeyed the par-4 5th, failing to save par from a greenside bunker. Romero had a chance to even the match on the par-4 4th hole, when Norman hit his tee shot into the water bordering the right side of the fairway. But Norman's bogey on that hole was matched by Romero's bogey of his own, after hitting a poor chip shot from the front of the green and failing to convert for par from 9 feet. Momentum seemed to begin to change at the 6th hole. Eduardo birdied from 12 feet and Norman parred and the match was just 1-up for the Australian. On the tee on the 188-yard par-3 7th hole there was some indecision as to what club to use. The green is heavily guarded by bunkers in the front and back, and a large pond to the left. The 7th green is also not very deep making club selection very difficult. There was a lot of consultation between Romero and Juan Foutel, his caddie of 15 years. The tee box on that hole is protected from the wind by the clubhouse, trees, and hills. It's very easy to underestimate the favoring sea breeze. But the Argentine hit the first of his two great 7-iron approach shots of the day, a soaring high fade that left him within 3 feet of the hole which resulted in birdie. Norman's tee shot was on the green too, left and short, 25 feet from the hole. But Norman made his putt to hold off Romero's charge, and after both parred the par-4 8th, Norman birdied the par-5 9th sinking a 20-foot putt from below the hole. Romero settled for a conceded par, after his chip shot from the behind the green barely missed the hole. "The Shark" was steady in control, playing well, and 2-up through nine holes.
The inward nine started with pars from both players on the 10th and 11th holes. The scale seemed to tip further towards the Australian when he 2-putted for birdie from about 30 feet on the 541-yard par-5 12th hole. The "Cordobes" only managed to make par, after his second shot from the left rough left him short of the green, and his 8-foot putt attempt for birdie slid by. "The Shark" had extended his lead to 3-up. Both players made par on the 410-yard par-4 13th, so it was time for "El Gato" to pounce back to live up to his nickname, or just fade away and lose the match.
But something happened on the 204-yard par-3 14th hole. Norman barely carried the front bunker and the ball took a lucky bounce towards the flag, leaving him a seemingly simple 12-foot uphill putt for birdie. Eduardo's tee shot was short, right, into a deep bunker. He exploded his bunker shot to about 4 feet. The Australian missed his putt, and "El Gato" saved his par. What seemed a very likely 4-up with four holes to go for Norman, was still 3-up. And Romero kept hanging in there with another spectacular approach shot on the 378-yard par-4 15th hole. After a blocked tee shot into a bunker on the right side, he stiffed an 8-iron that missed the hole by a foot. He made a 15-foot downhill putt for birdie and Norman, who had played the hole in a hoganesque way -- middle of the fairway to middle of the green -- only managed par, and the match was then 2-up with three holes to go. On the 423-yard par-4 16th hole, "The Cat" saved par from the greenside rough, and Norman, who had driven it right into the rough and among the trees, only managed to pitch out and wedge his third shot from 120 yards to 15 feet. He missed his putt and his bogey put the match at 1-up with two holes to go and the momentum scale was beginning to tip towards Romero's side. They both managed pars on the long 569-yard into the sea breeze, par-5 17th. Romero two-putted from 45 feet after a marginal approach, and Norman missed high a 6-foot uphill putt that would have closed the match. They arrived to the 18th tee with the Argentine 1-down in desperate need to win the hole to extend the match.
What seemed to be the end of a Norman-dominated match, the 18th hole was instead the beginning of the end of a match for the ages. Both players hit long drives, Norman's longer by 15 yards or so. Romero had 169 yards to the flag and hit, according to Romero himself in his English with Cordobes accent, "a 7-iron with a little fade, left-to-right, perfect, perfect". The ball carried the front bunker and calmly ended a short run that barely missed the hole, resting within a foot from the hole for a conceded birdie. Norman's approach was wide right, and his attempt to chip it in failed, leaving the match just like it was when they were standing on the 1st tee at 10:06 earlier that day, all-square.
Off they went to the extra holes. Starting at the 1st hole, just like they did in the morning. Romero again missed the fairway but managed to get to the green in two. Norman had a great drive and a fair approach to 18 feet. Both players parred that 412-yard par-4 hole. The second hole, a 526-yard par-5 with out-of-bounds left off the tee and water guarding the right side of the fairway -- compromising a long second shot into the green -- was a bucket of cold water for Romero and showed that "The Shark" still had teeth. Romero had the honors and hit it long, just inside the left rough. Norman, in a very uncharacteristic move, hit a high pull-hook that hit a paved cart path and bounced out of bounds. Advantage Romero. "The Shark" hit his third shot off the tee, a booming long drive down the center of the fairway. Romero conservatively laid up to within wedge distance, avoiding getting into trouble with the water on the right side. Norman hit the green with his outstanding fourth shot; but Romero hit his approach short. Norman two-putted for bogey, and Romero missed a 5-foot putt for par that kissed the edge of the hole, therefore extending the match to yet another hole, the 21st.
The 3rd hole at La Costa is a 187-yard par-3 with a shallow and wide green, like the 7th, with deep bunkers guarding the front and back. Romero hit another high-fade that sailed over the flag and ended up 15 feet above the hole. Norman's tee shot went towards the left side of the green, and after a fortunate bounce his ball ended up pin high, 45 feet from the hole. He putted to within a foot for a conceded par, and "El Gato" stroked a slippery right-to-left downhill putt that trickled his way into the middle of the hole for the amazing victory.
"I still can't believe the match I just won," said Romero. "I never gave up, and when Greg missed his birdie putt on 14th I told Juan (my caddie) the match is not over yet".
He responded with a "Gracias" or a "Thank you" to the many congratulations he received along the way, as we were shuttled from the 3rd green to the Media Center. As he walked out of the locker room he got an invitation to play the Doral-Ryder Open in Florida next week, as perhaps the first reward after his deserved victory.
He beat a great champion, Greg Norman, in a memorable mano-a-mano duel. He never gave up, and even though "there is more than one way to skin a cat", today Eduardo Romero, "El Gato", proved that there is also more than one way to fish a shark.