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Everybody on the Bland-wagon - Richard Bland oldest to emerge from pool play at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

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Englishman Richard Bland, 49, is the oldest to emerge from pool play at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    Richard Bland holes 32-foot birdie putt at WGC-Dell Match Play

    AUSTIN, Texas – Golf has a way of returning to a man, again and again.

    Richard Bland, who got his first win in his 478th start on the DP World Tour last year, and is currently peaking at 49, could tell you all about it. And he knows his late-in-the-game rise has reverberated far beyond the yellow, nylon gallery ropes.

    “Yeah, obviously the messages that I get from people that, all over the globe, over the last 12 months, has been incredible,” Bland said after beating Lee Westwood 2 and 1 at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play on Friday. “People that you never will ever meet, and they tell me their kind of story that what I've done has inspired them to carry on their journey. They were losing a little bit of hope, and am I going down right path, and it's given them that extra sort of belief that they are on the right path.

    “And that's – reading them is quite emotional,” Bland continued. “I will always keep them. Whenever this phone gets sort of upgraded or whatever, all those messages will stay forever.”

    Bland has a lot of silver in his 5 o’clock shadow, but who gets to say when it’s finally too late? In a sense, the action Friday, as Bland dispatched his old English boys’ teammate Westwood to set up a knockout-round match against Dustin Johnson, was a microcosm of Bland’s whole career. That is, things looked shaky – until they didn’t. But that’s golf. It serves up the same shot that just left a bad taste, the same tournament that slipped away last year, until a man either gets it right or quits.

    It was slipping away as Bland missed putts of 7 feet and 9 feet at the 13th and 15th holes, respectively, allowing Westwood to close the gap. Finally, though, when he could afford no more lapses, Bland coaxed in an 8-foot birdie putt on 16 to preserve a 1-up lead. Then he drained a 32-foot birdie on 17 to defeat Westwood 2 and 1 and advance.

    A moth flitted just above the ball as it made its way to the hole on the decisive putt, and when it dropped, golf’s most unlikely new Cinderella pumped his fist – Bland fury! – and waited for Westwood to line up his own birdie try from 21 feet. It slid by.

    Bland, who got an exemption into next week’s Valero Texas Open and is trying to play his way into the world top 50 and his first Masters in two weeks (he’s 60th), was moving on. He is the oldest player to win his group since this format began in 2015, topping Phil Mickelson, who was 46 when he advanced to the knockout rounds in 2017.

    The new darling of Austin, Bland has increasingly enviable problems. He and his wife, Catrin, were supposed to be headed to New York to celebrate her 40th birthday, but that will have to wait. She’s flying from England to Austin and is expected to be here by Saturday night. They will be in San Antonio for the Valero next week, and possibly Augusta, Georgia, after that.

    Bland’s life has utterly transformed since his playoff win at the Betfred British Masters last year. Since then, he’s had a share of the lead through two rounds at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines (fading to finish T50) and lost in a playoff to Viktor Hovland at the Dubai Desert Classic in January. More than two decades into his career, he is, somewhat inexplicably, peaking. He’s getting into tournaments, like this one, that once went on without him. How to explain it? He has no idea.

    “I’m not doing anything different,” he said.

    He still uses the same mismatched set of clubs, some of them a decade old. He still has the same coach, and still laces up his boots and puts his head down and just gets on with it. Success, though, has finally gotten in the way.

    “I guess probably someone at 49 shouldn't be doing this for the first time,” he said.

    But in the next breath he says if a man stays fit and takes care of himself, why not?

    “Never,” he said, when asked if he’d doubted himself. “Even when I lost my card in 2018, I always kind of thought one year doesn't make you a bad player, you don't become a bad player overnight. Not when you've played on the European Tour for 15 plus years. So yeah, I knew what was in front of me going back to the Challenge Tour at 46 years old.”

    When was the last time Bland hit a 400-plus-yard drive, like Johnson, his next opponent?

    “Probably never,” Bland said, “but it's going to be fun. Of course, he's favorite. Yeah, I'm not, that's not being negative or anything like that. That's just realistic. Everybody knows that.

    “But if I play how I know I can play,” he added, “I would like to think he's got a game on his hands.”

    Counting Bland’s Irish caddie, Greg Milne, and his caddie’s kid brother, Rory, who plays college golf in Louisiana, there were four people on the Bland-wagon for this rousing run. The other two: Bland’s brother, Heath, who nearly died from a virus in 2018 and has come all the way back, and his brother’s best friend, Tim.

    Golf has returned to Bland; life itself has returned to his brother.

    To mark Heath’s incredible recovery – “He died twice,” Bland said – the brothers were supposed to play Augusta National in 2020. Like so much else during the worst of the pandemic, the trip got canceled. They were supposed to play again this week. That, too, got canceled when Bland did enough to punch his ticket to Austin.

    “That’s my bad, that one,” he said, laughing.

    Bland also laughed at the vagaries of the Official World Golf Ranking. “I didn't play for three weeks, and I think I went up seven spots,” he said. “So, I was kind of thinking, well, if I don't play for the rest of the year, I might be world No. 1.”

    The line got a big reaction, but why not? Less than a year shy of PGA TOUR Champions eligibility, Bland is on the kind of rise that would confound even TopTracer. He never lost hope, he’s going down the right path, and whether or not it gets him to Augusta, the other guys have got a game on their hands.

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.