Ernie Els of South Africa hits a tee shot on the 16th hole during the quarterfinal round of the Match Play Championship Saturday. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)
Marana, Ariz. — It’s rare to hear Ernie Els describe his week at the Match Play Championship as “wonderful.”
He’s usually not around long enough to say anything at all.
This time, the wacky world of match play is working in his favor. Even though Els has made more bogeys than birdies, even though he didn’t break par at Dove Mountain until his quarterfinal match Saturday, the 44-year-old South African is two matches away from claiming another World Golf Championship.
Els made birdie from the desert on the par-5 eighth hole to take the lead for good against 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, and then pulled away for a 4-and-2 victory to reach the semifinals for the first time in 13 years.
“At times I haven’t played my best, as you guys have well-documented and know,” Els said with a laugh. “But it’s match play. I’ve just done enough to get through.”
Graeme McDowell was the only other player who felt lucky to still be around, only for his luck to run out against Victor Dubuisson of France.
McDowell had reached the quarterfinals even though he never led a single hole while any of his previous three matches were in progress. He finally took a lead — 60 holes into this tournament — and wound up losing.
Typical of his week, it went down to the wire.
Dubuisson hit a beautiful chip from the rough in front of a corporate suite behind the 16th green to save par, while McDowell missed a 6-foot putt to lose the hole. Dubuisson saved par with another superb chip behind the 17th green, and had one more in his bag from below the 18th green to save yet another par. McDowell narrowly missed a 25-foot birdie putt that would have extended the match.
“Lucky, lucky to even be here today,” McDowell said. “But actually played quite nicely most of the day. It all boiled down to my putter actually let me down. I had a chance on 14 for the hole, chance on 15 for the hole, missed a short one on 16. My luck is going to run out sooner than later.”
Els plays Dubuisson, a rising star in the European ranks who won the Turkish Open, where Tiger Woods finished five shots behind.
In other quarterfinal matches:
■ Jason Day reached the semifinals for the second straight year with a 2-and-1 win over Louis Oosthuizen, who played with a nagging back injury.
■ Rickie Fowler lost a 3-up lead to Arizona grad Jim Furyk, only to win the last two holes for a 1-up victory for a shot at Day. Furyk was in the same spot as Dubuisson on the 18th hole, but his first chip rolled back down the hill toward his feet.
Fowler is the No. 53 seed, the highest to reach the semifinals since Zach Johnson was No. 59 in 2006 when it was held at La Costa.
Els long held a reputation as a wizard in match play, having captured the World Match Play Championship seven times when it was at Wentworth and featured smaller fields and 36-hole matches. This version hasn’t been kind to him.
He reached the semifinals in 2001 at Metropolitan Golf Club in Melbourne, only to lose to Pierre Fulke. Els didn’t imagine it would take this long to get back, though he understands that anything can happen — and usually does — over 18 holes of match play.
“I really had a love-hate relationship with this event, as you guys well know,” he said. “I was lucky enough to get in the field a couple of years ago and beat Luke Donald in the first round. But most of the time, I lost in the first round here either on the 18th or 19th hole. It’s been a frustrating time in this event.”
The semifinals will be Sunday morning, following by the championship match.
“I’m just very glad to be here on Sunday,” Els said. “Hopefully, it goes good tomorrow. I still feel I’ve got a really good one in me.”
Fowler never looked like he would need to go 18th holes the way his match against Furyk started. And then he was happy to get there. Furyk was 3 down with only six holes remaining when he made three straight birdies and won a fourth straight hole at No. 16 with a par when Fowler flubbed a chip. Furyk missed the fairway on the 17th, however, allowing Fowler to square the match.
On the 18th, Furyk came up just a fraction short of perfect and saw the ball roll back down the false front of the green. His chip was heavy, and that one rolled back toward his feet and led to bogey. Fowler navigated a quick birdie putt down the slope to a concession range and escaped.
“Disappointed,” said Furyk, in the quarterfinals for the first time in 14 appearances in this World Golf Championship. “I fought all way back from 3 down. I had all the momentum and I didn’t put the ball on the fairway on 17 and didn’t put the ball in the fairway on 18. I don’t feel I handed the match away, but I definitely made it too easy on him the last two holes.”
It was the third straight round in which Fowler was trailing with three holes to play, and he pulled out wins against Jimmy Walker, Sergio Garcia and Furyk. The only easy time Fowler had was against Ian Poulter.
“It’s nice to get a win no matter how it happens,” Fowler said.
Nordqvist leads Wie
Swede Anna Nordqvist shot a 5-under 67 at the LPGA Thailand on Saturday for a 4-stroke lead over top-ranked Inbee Park and American Michelle Wie.
The 27th-ranked Nordqvist sprinkled her third round at the Siam Country Club with four birdies and an eagle on the 10th against a bogey on No. 5.
Leading since the first round, the 26-year-old Nordqvist has an overall 11-under 205. She is chasing her first win on the U.S. LPGA Tour since 2009.
Park shot 67 and Wie 69.
“I think the great players out there, Inbee, Stacy (Lewis), they’ve been up there so many times, so they look pretty comfortable out there,” Nordqvist said. “For me, it’s a matter of keep putting myself in those positions and the win will happen eventually.”
Defending champion Park, playing her first tournament of the season, birdied the opening two holes and Nos. 10-13, with a lone bogey on the eighth.
“I hit a lot of great irons shots out there today, I think I still left four birdies out there,” the four-time Major champion said.
The 2010 runner-up Wie had an error-free round.
“Couple hard pins, couple easy pins. Didn’t really take advantage of the par 5s like I wanted to, but I can’t really complain about it. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll just have a lot more birdies,” Wie said. “I really want that win, but I’m not going to put the added pressure on myself.”
Paraguay’s Julieta Granada (71) was a further stroke behind in fourth.
Tseng Yani of Taiwan, winner here in 2011 and ‘12, carded a 6-under 66 for an overall 5-under 211 and a share of fifth with Americans Cristie Kerr (68) and Lexi Thompson (69) as well as New Zealand teen prodigy Lydia Ko (69).