Winner of 5 straight, Woods needs 6 matches in a row to win WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship

Tiger Woods, 2008 Buick Invitational
Robert Beck/SI
Woods won in his last start, the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines.

MARANA, Arizona (AP) — Tiger Woods has not lost a tournament in nearly six months, which has fueled speculation and expectations that border on being absurd, such as one question on Tuesday whether he has ever allowed himself to dream about a perfect season.

"No,'' Woods said.

Then came the briefest pause.

"I've had one perfect season,'' he added, "but it's been a while. When I was 11. I won 36 tournaments that year. I peaked at 11.''

Perfection is what it takes at the Accenture Match Play Championship, which starts on Wednesday on The Gallery course at Dove Mountain among the top 64 players available from the world ranking.

"It's kind of do-or-die here,'' Adam Scott said. "You'd better bring it every day. Otherwise, you're probably going home, because you've got the top guys in the world here. As much as I expect to win, you've got to be a little careful that you're not getting ahead of yourself in this format.''

Woods, who plays J.B. Holmes in the first round, knows that all too well.

He is the only No. 1 seed to lose in the first round since this tournament began in 1999, getting eliminated in 2002 by Peter O'Malley. Last year he lost in the third round to Nick O'Hern.

The circumstances are slightly familiar. Woods was going for his eighth consecutive U.S. PGA Tour victory last year. His winning streak now is a little more complicated to compute, but it is no less impressive.

Since finishing second on Sept. 3 at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Woods won the last two playoff events in the FedEx Cup and opened his '08 season on the U.S. PGA Tour by winning the Buick Invitational by eight shots. He also won his unofficial Target World Challenge in California against a 16-man field by seven shots. On the European Tour, he rallied from four shots down to win the Dubai Desert Classic.

Unofficially, that's five straight wins spread over five months.

"This is always going to be probably a little more difficult to win because you could be playing well and still go home,'' Woods said. "It's not about the marathon. It's not about the long race of four rounds to position yourself for winning a golf tournament. It's a sprint. You've got to get it done in 18 holes. If you get two or three behind in this format with only 18 holes, generally the guys lose.

"But in stroke play, if you get off to a slow start, you can still win a golf tournament.''

Consider this - in his 60 stroke-play victories on the U.S. PGA Tour, Woods has led in the first round only 13 times.

Woods' love for match play dates to his amateur career, where he set one record with as much staying power as his 15-shot victory in the U.S. Open. He won three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs, followed by three straight U.S. Amateurs.

Someone once asked Woods why match play was tougher as a professional.

"The field,'' he replied, and there's a lot of truth to that.

Unlike the brackets for Wimbledon, there is no safe bet at the Accenture Match Play Championship, especially over 18 holes.

That was proven in the first four years, when the winning seeds looked like they came off a Bingo card - 24, 19, 55, 62.

Henrik Stenson is the defending champion, but he was so sick with a stomach virus last week at home in Dubai that he couldn't get out of bed for three days and had a tough time flying across seven time zones to Arizona. He hadn't touched a club in a week until Monday, and wasn't particularly fond of his chances.

Second-seeded Phil Mickelson, coming off a victory at Riviera last week, faces Pat Perez, who has not played this format since he was an amateur.

Mickelson, however, has lost in the first round twice before. And he decided against playing a practice round at The Gallery.

No one needs a reminder about the vagaries of match play more than Ernie Els.

He is a seven-time champion of the World Match Play Championship in England, in which matches are contested over 36 holes each day. At this World Golf Championship, Els has never advanced to the third round in America. The only time it was held in Australia, he reached the semifinals before losing to Pierre Fulke.

Not many were surprised when he said he would not be coming this year. The shock was when he changed his mind.

Els was supposed to be on holiday this week in South Africa with his family. But he decided he had taken a long break in the winter, so he was playing on Dove Mountain as his kids toured the Grand Canyon.

If nothing else, Els' expectations are probably tempered.

"My record is not great in this tournament, as we all know,'' Els said. "If I have a better game and I get a bit lucky, you win a couple of matches and you can find yourself in the quarterfinals or semifinals. I'm really aiming at that. And basically, that's why I'm here.''

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