It wouldn't be the whole story to say the first day of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is one of the most entertaining days of the year for fans.
The players get a kick out of it too.
"Most players, after they win their first-round match, are very interested in seeing the highlights of the other matches," says Stewart Cink, who is 8-4 in the first round, and whose memorable first-round clashes include a 19th-hole victory over defending champion Ian Poulter in 2011. "The interest is more so than at other tournaments. They might not want to admit it, but they do watch. Match play has that interesting dynamic. You want to see how it unfolds."
Sixty-four players will square off in the first round of the first truly global golf event of the year at Dove Mountain on Wednesday. It's not a major, and it's not a Ryder Cup, but it's sure to be fascinating. The first round of the Accenture is as close as golf gets to the first two days of college basketball's March Madness, a clash of styles, personalities and pedigrees that always sends at least a few plucky underdogs to the next round.
First-round losers go home with $46,000, which at least mitigates the sting of a shorter-than-expected business trip. Winners are guaranteed $96,000, with the eventual winner pocketing $1.5 million.
"It's an exciting feeling," says Keegan Bradley, who was 8 under through 15 holes in a victory over Geoff Ogilvy in the first round last year. "It's the feeling of being close to a win. When you tee it up on the first day, you only have to beat six guys."
Losing a tournament on the same day you start it is the golf equivalent of totaling the car before getting out of the driveway-it hurts your pride. Maybe that explains why the two longest matches in the history of the tournament, each of which went 26 holes, came in the first round: Mike Weir over Loren Roberts in 2003 and Scott Verplank over Lee Westwood in 2006.
Roberts, who now plays on the Champions tour, remembers how the pressure intensified with every hole, but he doesn't get animated until he recalls the first day of the 1999 Accenture. That was when Vijay Singh, flying high after throttling Rocco Mediate, 5 and 3, ran into Bernhard Langer, who had beaten Brad Faxon, 4 and 2. The two were slated to meet the next day.
"I was on the practice green and Bernhard was putting nearby. Vijay came by and said, 'What hole do you want me to send you in from, Bernhard?'" Roberts says, laughing at the memory. "Bernhard sort of smiled and didn't look up, he just kept on putting. The next day, I was on the practice green again when Vijay came by again. Bernie had sent him home [2 and 1]."
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Streaks happen, but they typically don't last. Paul Casey lost in the first round four consecutive times before reaching the quarterfinals in '07 and the final in '09 and '10. Tiger Woods is 10-2 in the first round, but one of those losses, to Peter O'Malley in 2002, was a shocker. (Thomas Bjorn also beat Woods, in 19 holes, when Woods was retooling his swing in 2011.) Luke Donald had won seven straight first-round matches when he lost, 5 and 4, to Ernie Els last year. All of which suggests Rory McIlroy's spotless first-round record (4-0) won't last forever.
Even the top seeds aren't immune to being humbled. Kevin Sutherland drew David Duval in the first round of the 2002 Match Play but told himself to play the game and not the name. "I just didn't really think about it," Sutherland says. Two down standing on the 17th tee, he birdied the last two to force extra holes and sent Duval packing at the 20th. Sutherland went on to become the lowest-seeded player (62) to win the tournament.
Other winners of the WGC-Accenture tell similar tales of first-round scares. Hunter Mahan needed 19 holes to dispatch Zach Johnson last year before ultimately beating McIlroy, 2 and 1, in the final.
"We both kind of just chopped it around," Mahan says of his match against Johnson. Mahan had to make a downhill, left-to-right six-footer at the last to stay alive. "I felt beat up a little bit and I didn't play great," Mahan said. Johnson made a mess of the first extra hole, and Mahan was through to the second round.
Ogilvy needed 19 holes to dispatch Sutherland in the first round in '09 and 19 holes to beat Michael Campbell in the first round in '06. Like the others, Ogilvy seemed to be more steeled than spooked by his close calls and won out from there.
"I was really struggling in those two matches," Ogilvy says, "and by the end of the tournament I was playing very well. It's a strange tournament. It's hard to know how to feel about it. In the beginning of the first day, it feels like Thursday of any other tournament because it's the first action you've had, but if it's a close match, by the time you get to the 16th tee it feels like Sunday afternoon. So in three hours you've gone from Thursday morning to Sunday afternoon."
First rounds are notoriously full of upsets, and there's at least one predictable thing about Wednesday: The number of upsets has ranged from 11 to 14 every year but two. There were 18 in 1999, the Accenture's first year, and 15 last year. On six occasions, there have been 13 upsets.
There's one other predictable thing: A player who survives an epic first-round match, as Cink did against Poulter two years ago, may be ripe for a takedown. "He and I had seen each other lots in the Ryder Cup," Cink says, "and neither of us really wanted to lose. It was a sweet win for me, but I let myself relax too much and got waxed, 4 and 3, by Y.E. Yang the next day."