Ernie Els gave a knowing smile when he was asked if he'd take a sentimental drive past La Costa Resort this week to pay his respects to the former home of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
"No. For some reason I don't think I will go swing by La Costa," he said, keeping a straight face. "I think I will just get in the plane and go straight to Tucson Sunday night."
Els is a stellar match play competitor, with six victories in the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, but he disliked La Costa, which flooded at the slightest provocation and was dubbed "Lake La Costa" by Jerry Kelly. In fact, so many others grew tired of the soggy Southern California track, the Accenture moves to a new venue, the Gallery at Dove Mountain in Tucson, Arizona, this week.
"Change is good sometimes," said Els, who skipped this event in 2004 and 2005 and lost three first-round matches in six starts.
The new course isn't the only reason to suggest Els will have his best showing. (He was 4th in 2001.) After having a chance to win every major and capturing zero in 2004; and after wrenching his knee in 2005; Els seems to have left his psychological and physical traumas behind him. He quietly tied for third (69-68-67-67) at the Nissan last weekend, after a 2nd place finish in Dubai, a 3rd in Qatar and a 1st at the South African Airways Open in mid-December. He's ready to win.
Although this tournament is less predictable than the notoriously fickle NCAA men's hoops bracket, here are the rest of my first-round picks:
• Hubert Green (16) over Phil Mickelson (1). Sorry. Not Hubert. I meant Nathan, the Australian. Wait a sec. It's Richard Green. Granted, Phil is coming off a victory at Pebble, and almost won the Nissan, botching a straight forward up-and-down in sudden death, but if Mickelson looked a bit off on Sunday, fatigue definitely catches up to him on Wednesday, at the start of his sixth tournament in six weeks.
• Justin Rose (9) over Michael Campbell (8). Rose is playing well this year, and no one goes as consistently low in the first few rounds.
• Sergio Garcia (4) over Darren Clarke (13). Although Clarke won in 2000, Garcia's pretty fair at match play and will feel comforted playing against a friend and Ryder Cup teammate.
• Charles Howell (12) over Stuart Appleby (5). Neither one of these guys has anything close to a winning record here, but CH3 will be firing at flags after finally getting that second career win at the Nissan. Beating Phil doesn't hurt, either.
• Els (2) over Bradley Dredge (15). See above
• Ian Poulter (7) over Bart Bryant (10). Poulter too good in this format.
• Thomas Bjorn (14) over Trevor Immelman (3). Experience trumps a rising young star who hasn't showed much yet in 2007.
• Chris DiMarco (6) over Brett Wetterich (11). DiMarco. Match play. Enough said.
• Jim Furyk (1) over Brett Quigley (16). Quigley makes a lot of birdies but Furyk is too consistent, too gritty and too tough.
• Angel Cabrera (8) over Chad Campbell (9). Cabrera is long, and so is the Gallery at Dove Mountain.
• Davis Love III (4) over Ben Crane (13). A three-time semifinalist and two-time finalist, Davis loves this event.
• David Toms (5) over Arron Oberholser (12). Toms started to heat up in L.A.; Oberholser is coming off an injury.
• John Rollins (15) over Vijay Singh (2). Rollins almost took out Woods in the first round here, and he's been playing well. Singh has cooled since winning the Mercedes and does not thrive in this format.
• Stephen Ames (10) over Robert Karlsson (7). Ames atones for ill-advised Tiger quote and blowout first-round losses the last two years.
• Padraig Harrington (3) over Lee Westwood (14). Harrington rides momentum from solid 54 holes in L.A.
• Stewart Cink (6) over Jeev Milkha Singh (11). Cink wins this one if he plays even half as good as he did against Garcia in the Ryder Cup.
• Adam Scott (1) over Shaun Micheel (16). Scott kills in this event; Micheel used up match play magic beating Tiger in HSBC last year.
• Yong-Eun Yang (8) over Rod Pampling (9). Pampling struggles to pronounce his opponent's game; loses concentration.
• Mike Weir (13) over Paul Casey (4). Weir playing a bit better of late; Casey 0-4 in the Accenture.
• Johan Edfors (12) over Colin Montgomerie (5). Monty hates flying all this way and losing in the first round, which is why it happens so often. Losing to a Swede in a funny hat will be even worse.
• Retief Goosen (2) over Scott Verplank (15). Goosen resurgent; course too long for gritty U.S. star.
• Niclas Fasth (10) over Joe Durant (7). Fasth played well last week.
• Steve Stricker (14) over Geoff Ogilvy (3). Stricker's putter heats up and carries him to W in battle of former champions.
• Jose Maria Olazabal (6) over Paul Goydos (11). Ollywobble draws in Ryder Cup experience to win in extra holes.
• Tiger Woods (1) over J.J. Henry (16). Unlike Peter O'Malley, the stocky Aussie who upended Woods in the opening round in 2002, Henry is all too aware of Woods's amazing career.
• Robert Allenby (9) over Tim Clark (8). Allenby's length helps him, and he's coming off a top-10 at the Nissan.
• Nick O'Hern (4) over Lucas Glover (13). O'Hern beat Woods in the second round in 2005, but he'll get a fight from Glover.
• Rory Sabbatini (12) over David Howell (5). Former Arizona Wildcat "Sabo" rides good Tucson vibes to victory here.
• Luke Donald (2) over Miguel Angel Jimenez (15). Donald wins a close one.
• Aaron Baddeley (10) over Shingo Katayama (7). Winning a habit for recent FBR Open champ.
• Henrik Stenson (3) over Zach Johnson (14). Hard to pick against a semifinalist at the Accenture last year who loves match play; harder still to pick against Stenson, who beat Tiger, Ernie and the rest in Dubai.
• K.J. Choi (6) over Carl Pettersson (11). Choi's annoying sounding square driver wins battle of endomorphic Nike pitchmen.