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MARANA, Ariz. -- Perhaps the new look should have been the first clue that little, if anything, would go to form at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Rickie Fowler's hair now fits under his wide-brim cap.
For those seeing him for the first time since he cut it two weeks ago, it is a bit of a shock with Fowler now looking like a teenager rather than the 25-year-old stylish golf pro with the flashy outfits.
And right away, in the first match at Dove Mountain, there was Fowler beating back match-play maven Ian Poulter 2 and 1, a relatively easy victory that saw him up 3 holes at times over the back nine.
Who saw that coming?
Sure, this is match play, where anything can happen, and all sorts of "upsets" (the word doesn't really apply here) occurred during the opening day of the World Golf Championship event.
But Fowler was going up against one of the game's all-time match play greats, the U.S. Ryder Cup team killer who has won this tournament and the European match-play event. Poulter had a 22-11 record coming into this week.
Meanwhile, Fowler, working on swing changes with new coach Butch Harmon, had missed three consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour.
"If I was picking a bracket and I was an outsider looking in, I probably would have picked Poulter," Fowler said. "He's played well here and in match play. I went into it, I knew I was the underdog, I knew I had somewhat nothing to lose."
You could tell that Fowler was stoked to get a piece of Poulter, the star of the 2012 Ryder Cup for Europe who went 4-0 at Medinah and has built his playing reputation on being so stout at this format. He is an amazing 12-3 overall and 4-0 in singles at the Ryder Cup.
A day earlier, Poulter had talked about what makes him so good at match play.
"I hate losing," he said. "Sorry. I hate losing. Absolutely hate it. Really detest it badly. Really badly.
"I don't know any great sportsman that's a great loser, to be honest, providing you do it in your own space and relieve the anger without anyone seeing it. I've always taken defeat pretty bad. I don't enjoy it."
|Ian Poulter appears nearly unbeatable in match play, having starred for the European Ryder Cup team in recent years. The quirky nature of the format, though, can lead to some unlikely surprises, like Poulter's loss to Rickie Fowler on Wednesday.|
Wednesday, then, was particularly agonizing. Poulter managed five birdies but made three bogeys -- allowing Fowler to win those holes with pars.
"I'm pissed off," Poulter said. "I gave him three holes, and you just cannot do that. I'm just really disappointed because I didn't put him under any pressure at all. I intend to get my backside out of here as quickly as I can. It's annoying as I couldn't have worked any harder than I have in the last five weeks."
Fowler has been working hard too, with little to show for it. He doesn't have a top-5 finish on the PGA Tour since the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and still counts just one PGA Tour title despite considerable hype.
Lower back problems plagued him after his first win at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012, and it finally reached a tipping point last year when he missed the cut at the Open Championship. He asked Harmon to look at his swing, and the two formalized an arrangement in November.
As with many of these decisions to make a change, there are considerable growing pains.
"Some of the stuff I tried on the range felt completely foreign," Fowler said. "I felt like a hack on the range. I'd hit it fat and then go thinning them. So it was kind of interesting to think I was headed in the right direction doing that.
"And to where I am now, the golf swing feels really good. I feel like when everything is clicking, it's a lot more efficient. I'm hitting the ball harder, and I feel like I have a lot of control over it. If we can get the putter warmed up, a lot of good things can happen."
Now Fowler runs into the hottest player in golf, Jimmy Walker, who also works with Harmon. Playing in his first WGC event, Walker is much further along in the process, and it has paid off with three victories since October. He had an easy 5 and 4 victory over Branden Grace on Wednesday.
Walker had to think back to his amateur days for the last time he even played match play, guessing it was the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
If nothing else, it sets up an interesting match Thursday, one that is hard to pick, even with Walker's fast start to the season. He's clearly playing better, but match play is a different deal.
"I know Rickie. We have a lot in common, enjoy some of the same things," Walker said. "He's a good dude. I hate to say ... it's kind of ... match play is kind of personal. It's kind of a little bit of war, a little bit."
You could certainly say that about the Poulter-Fowler match, which hardly went to form. But then, in this format, what does?