Match Play will be compelling thanks to Tiger Woods, No. 1 ranking drama

Tiger Woods will face Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano on Wednesday.
Kohjiro Kinno / SI

There are many very good days, but only a handful of truly great days to watch golf. The last day of a close Ryder Cup is a great day, as is the last day of a tight U.S. Open. A sun-splashed Masters can be blessed with several very good days, and usually boasts a great one or two.

The frantic start of the WGC-Accenture Match Play, which begins with 32 matches at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain outside Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday, is a very good day.

"If you think about tennis," said South Africa's George Coetzee, who will play the Gary Player bracket's top seed, Rory McIlroy, "Rafael Nadal is not going to lose a first-round match. In golf you can't say it's the same, because anybody can beat anybody on any given day."

That's one of several reasons why the Accenture's opening day is such compelling theater. Among the others this week:

We could see a new world No. 1
According to the latest Sport Illustrated Golf Group poll, Phil Mickelson is the No. 1 player in golf, but he's not playing this week. (Paul Casey is also out after injuring his shoulder snowboarding.)

The official number one, Luke Donald, is coming off a final-round 78 and a tie for 56th place at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera. He missed the cut there last year but heated up at the Accenture and, after too many top-10 finishes but not nearly enough victories, picked up his first Tour win in five years at chilly Dove Mountain. That gave the No. 1 ranking to ... Accenture runner-up Martin Kaymer, he of the black-and-white neck buff. (Donald climbed from ninth to third.)    

It's crowded at the top. For only the second time, three of the top four seeds at the Accenture are current or former No. 1s. If McIlroy, who is 5-3 in three Accenture starts, wins the tournament, and Donald fails to reach the third round, then McIlroy will ascend to No. 1 for the first time in his career. Aside from winning last summer's U.S. Open, his record recalls Donald's résumé before winning the Accenture: a bunch of top-five finishes, but not all that many top-one finishes.

Similarly, if the winner is Lee Westwood -- who has never gotten past the second round in 11 starts, and who plays Nicolas Colsaerts in round one -- then Westwood would take over No. 1 for the third time in his career if Donald doesn't reach the quarterfinals.

Anyone-okay, almost anyone-could win it all
February Frenzy (golf) differs from March Madness (basketball) in that, of the 64 contestants, about 60 have a legitimate shot to win the whole thing in golf, compared to about a dozen in basketball.

Among the players who have come out of nowhere to win are Jeff Maggert, at the first Accenture in 1999, and Kevin Sutherland  in 2002.

"If you get on a roll and you play well you can run the tables here," said 2001 Accenture champion Steve Stricker, who won the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions and is coming off a five-week break. "I don't think it really matters where you come from."

This year's surprise could be Brandt Snedeker, whose touch around the wildly undulating greens -- Stricker calls them "busy" -- could make him dangerous if he can keep his ball in the fairway. If Snedeker can get past Retief Goosen in the first round, and Kyle Stanley beats K.J. Choi, then Snedeker and Stanley, both of whom won on the West Coast, would face each other in round two.  

Win or lose, Tiger's matches are fascinating
J.B. Holmes had Woods all but beat -- the Kentucky bomber was 3 up with five holes to play in their opening-round match in 2008. Then Woods won four straight holes with three birdies and a 35-foot eagle putt; if you've logged onto pgatour.com anytime in the last four years, you've probably seen a picture of the ensuing fist pump.

Woods (32-8 in 11 starts) went on to win the Accenture for the third time, thumping Stewart Cink 8 and 7 in the final match.  

Five-time European tour winner Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano has never played with Woods, but is relishing the chance to be this year's Thomas Bjorn, who upended Woods in the first round last year.

"I was quite happy to see my pairing," Fernandez-Castano said.

That type of comment used to constitute ill-advised bravado, but not anymore. The Spaniard figures he has nothing to lose, because even though he called Woods "beatable," and few if any would disagree, no one will expect such a lesser-known pro to prove the point. Such is the potency of the Tiger brand, even more than two years since his last official W.

Will this week mark the beginning of his next act? Recent history says no. Tim Clark beat Woods  4 and 2 in the second round in 2009, and Bjorn beat him on the first extra hole last year. (Woods did not play the Accenture in 2010.) And yet there is reason to believe his new swing is working -- at Pebble Beach and Abu Dhabi, his first two starts of 2012, he gave himself a chance to win but sabotaged his chances with poor play and in particular awful putting in the final round.

Match play transforms certain players
The stroke-play Ian Poulter is a nice player whose game isn't quite as flashy as his outfits. The match-play Poulter is a colossus. The 2010 Accenture champion and perennial Euro Ryder Cup hero may be the absolute last person you want to see in your part of the bracket.

"What that difference is, um, I've been trying to think about it," Poulter told me at the end of 2010. "It's the fear of losing your match within 18 holes, or the excitement of winning it as quickly as possible. Seventy-two holes stroke play is so different than when you've got 18 holes and that stopwatch is running. Time's going to run out sooner or later. I have a very different mentality going into a match-play event."

Poulter gets Korea's Sang-moon Bae in the first round, and while it might be considered an upset if 68th-ranked Ernie Els-in the field courtesy of Mickelson's absence-beats Donald, the far bigger upset would be if Bae beats Poulter. (Stewart Cink upended Poults in the first round a year ago, but Cink, who didn't qualify this year, loves Dove Mountain and is another renowned match-play nightmare.)

If he does indeed get past Bae, Poulter will face either Charl Schwartzel or Gary Woodland in round two.

The Accenture gives us psycho-dramas galore
Coetzee, who attempted to play golf for Tim Mickelson, Phil's brother, at the University of San Diego, but partied so hard he washed out after only four months, has seen McIlroy play only on TV. How will that affect their first-round match, if at all? And will it matter that Castano has never played with Woods, either? Is there a fear factor?

What about Westwood's aversion to this tournament? Will he finally get past the second round this time? To do so, he'll have to beat Colsaerts and either Robert Karlsson or Fredrik Jacobson.

Sergio Garcia, who won twice at the end of 2011 and is enjoying a mini-revival just in time for another Ryder Cup, finished fourth at the 2010 Accenture and is coming off a final-round 64 at Riviera on Sunday. But his first-round opponent is fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel-Jimenez. How will that play out?

And what about gritty Keegan Bradley, who is coming off a playoff loss at Riviera, versus first-round opponent Geoff Ogilvy, the Accenture winner in 2006 and '09, and a finalist in '07? There are a record 24 players under 30 in the field of 64. Who wins the battle of youth versus experience? And in a year that will see the Ryder Cup come to Chicago in September, who wins the inevitable Yank versus Euro matches?

Get ready for the answers to start flooding in from the Accenture on Wednesday, a very good day to watch golf.

 

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