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You've Got to Believe the Gypsies!

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Mark McCormackicts
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Marketing giant Mark McCormack knows that behind bad luck comes good luck. (.)

There is an old Gypsy proverb that predicts, "Behind bad luck comes good luck," and Mark McCormack, who heads golf's top marketing empire, is a believer. He tipped his hat to the Gypsies recently after his World Match Player Championship, tottering on the brink of disaster, suddenly turned up as one of the year's most exciting events.

Successful men, like winning golfers, seem to get luckier and luckier! McCormack got his incredible marketing career started with a handshake with Arnold Palmer in 1960. They had played college golf together, and when Arnie's overnight dash to stardom put him in need of an agent, Mark was there. He was a lawyer and from this first block in place, McCormack, with additional assists from Arnie, has built the International Management Group into a vast operation with offices around the globe and more than 1,000 on the payroll.

The World Match Play Championship has been one of the most successful McCormack creations. Started in 1964, under the Piccadilly sponsorship flag, it had the earmarks of a classic. It would involve the year's best players competing at match play - and that in itself was quite special. And it would be played on the challenging Wentworth Club course on the southwest fringe of London, in the closing weeks o the season.

Over the 37 intervening years it has lived up to its promise. The world's greatest players have put their names on its trophies, and its success has been a springboard for McCormack and his ever-growing enterprises. To be sure, the name at the top has changed, as it has in so many other sponsored events. Names like Colgate, Suntory and Toyota followed, and now Cisco is the latest name above the title.

But the format has remained, and that has been the solid basis for its long-term reign as one of the year's most popular events. Match play, featuring the top players and their reputations, is a lure that will always keep the customers coming. The invitations for this year's early October event promised to bring another glittering lineup of talent for the showdown, but much of that changed when the terrorists attacked America on September 11. With air travel schedules in disarray and future operations uncertain, many plans had to be changed. The Ryder Cup matches, scheduled to be played two weeks later in England, were postponed until 2002. Other tournaments were canceled. Quite understandably, some of the invitations for the Cisco Match Play were declined or returned. With the tee-off barely three weeks away, chaos prevailed for the McCormack team.

It was the first time in the event's history that an American would not be in the field. And since the Yanks occupy four of the five top places in the world rankings, there was no way this year's lineup was going to come even close to matching the all-star fields with which the event gained its world-class reputation. The highest ranked players included Colin Montgomerie (10th), U. S. Open champion Retief Goosen (14th), Padraig Harrington (15th), Thomas Bjorn (18th), defending champion Lee Westwood (21st), and Adam Scott (67th). The organizers braced for a disaster at the gate and a flop in the TV ratings - big bucks down the drain.

Sizing up this decimated field, the organizers suddenly came up with a stroke of genius. Since the "next best" players in line for substitution would have no impact on the event's pulling power, it was decided to invite some of the fan's favorites - the big names of yesterday - to fill the 12-man lineup. And just like that, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo, all previous winners, were in the draw. And at the very last minute, when another invitee dropped out, still one more old-timer, Sam Torrance, Europe's Ryder Cup captain and No. 313 in the world ranking, was added. Incidentally, most of the entries on the adjusted lineup were right out of McCormack's IMG stable.

The result? Crowds of 30,000 or more for each of the playing days, and plaudits from TV audiences for the excitement of the final round.

Of course, the biggest surprise was the little fellow standing in the winner's circle at the finish - Ian Woosnam, the 43-year-old Welshman. He had been there twice before, but now he was the oldest to win the prestigious match play test, and the first to do it over three decades - the first two coming in 1987 and 1990.

But it was no cakewalk for the popular Woosnam, who's now in his 19th year on the tour. His career has had periods of brilliance as he accumulated the 1991 Masters, 28 European Tour victories, and for a time the No. 1 spot in the world rankings. But he has sputtered along the way, too, mostly because of a fondness for the pub, insiders say. More recently, he has been on an upswing that has put him in the top dozen on the European Tour money list.

At the Cisco, he had the toughest draw of the tournament, and he went into each match as the underdog. In his very first contest he ran smack into Goosen, Europe's No. 1 player who had surprised many in winning the U. S. Open. The little Welshman, who's only 5'-4," made short work of him at 4 and 3.

The next one wasn't any easier. This time, he drew Montgomerie, who had set an incredible record by winning the European Order of Merit for seven consecutive years. He had tailed off for a time, especially on U. S. soil, but he's holding at No. 5 in Europe. It didn't matter to Woosnam, however. He reeled him in, also at 4 and 3.

This hasn't been one of Westwood's better years. He comes in at No. 21 on the world charts, and "Woosie" showed why. He quickly wrapped up their match at 10 and 9 - the fastest closeout of the tournament.

Harrington, who has been tagged by many as Europe's future major star, had a similar easy romp through the earlier rounds of his draw. He humiliated Faldo, the continent's best for so many years, 9 and 8, and then ran over Darren Clarke, Europe's No. 2, by 5 and 4.

His clash with the 48-year-old Torrance in the third heat was tougher than anticipated. Torrance, who doesn't play often and stands 313th on the world list, put up a notable battle before Harrington prevailed, 1 up.

The 36-holes final round was pure theater, with the lead and the tide of the match shifting frequently. Woosnam had seven consecutive birdies starting with the second hole, but he was down two holes to the Irishman at the end of the morning round. He was still trailing by three after eight in the afternoon, but then came the turning point. Harrington, wobbling, made a triple bogey at the ninth, and Woosie followed with birdies on 11, 12 and 13, to take the lead. He wrapped it up with another birdie on 17, and had his first victory since 1997. It was one he would long remember.

And McCormack would long remember the old Gypsy proverb.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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