CASARES, Spain Another week. Another No. 1 showdown.
Luke Donald has a chance to secure a unique match-play double after winning February's WGC-Accenture World Match Play in Arizona. If he can be last man standing again this week in Spain, he will overtake fellow Englishman Lee Westwood to reach the summit of the game for the first time.
Five of the world's top six are in the Costa del Sol for the Volvo World Match Play Championship at the Finca Cortesin course (only Phil Mickelson is missing). That's 1-up on last week's Players Championship at Sawgrass.
The format is a little more complicated than the WGC-Accenture World Match Play. At the Volvo World Match Play, the 24-player field is split into eight groups of three, who play each other on Thursday and Friday. A win is worth 2 points; a tie is 1 point. The top two from each group advance to the final 16 knockout stage, and the last man standing collects the $1.4 million first prize from a total purse of $4.8 million. It is the richest event in Europe outside of the British Open.
Match-play specialist Donald drew defending champion Ross Fisher and Seattle's Ryan Moore in the first round, and they will have a tough battle to end Donald's hot streak. (Donald has 13 top 10s in his last 14 tournaments and he has only lost three of 19 career matches in the Walker Cup and Ryder Cup.)
"I have a lot of confidence," Donald said. "The fact I'm grinding out these top 10s week-in, week-out means I'm getting to the point where I kind of expect to keep doing it.
"It's a good place to be," Donald continued. "But I'll be the first to say that over the last six months I should have turned one or two of those top 10s into wins."
The World No. 1 ranking is now up for grabs almost on a weekly basis since the halo dropped from Tiger Woods' life and game.
"Obviously Tiger has had some personal issues and it's affected him on the course a little bit," Donald said. "And he's given us all a chance to go for that No. 1 spot. It's been fun to climb up and see myself getting nearer to the top."
Golf's current No. 1 Lee Westwood is also relishing a week of match play on the back of winning his last two stroke-play tournaments. Westwood is returning to action after his controversial no-show at the Players Championship, which attracted some criticism in Florida.
"I have no time for being bothered about stuff that people say that I'm not bothered about," Westwood said. "Why let that worry you? They are not people that concern me."
As for Johnny Miller suggesting that Westwood should say "thank you" to America?
"Johnny's entitled to his opinion. I'm sure we'll have an interesting conversation the next time we meet," Westwood said with a grin.
Westwood's plan this week is to extend his winning streak to three by embracing the spirit of Seve Ballesteros, who won this event five times.
"Just watching the way he played match play, the way he never gave anything away, the fight he showed," Westwood said. "He was never really out of a hole. Even if he was in the worst lie in the worst spot, you always thought he had a chance of getting the ball up and down. That's probably why he was so successful in this tournament."
Westwood will play Anders Hansen on Thursday then Aaron Baddeley. There are eight matches on Thursday followed by 16 on Friday, and we've got plenty of storylines. Paul Casey versus Alvaro Quiros could turn into a muscle-bound, drive-for-show ego trip. Major bragging rights are up for grabs as Open winners Graeme McDowell (U.S.) and Louis Oosthuizen (British) go head-to-head. Martin Kaymer takes on Y.E. Yang in the Battle of the PGA Champions.
Masters champion Charl Schwartzel will try to upset the locals by defeating Miguel-Angel Jimenez. Francesco Molinari and Ian Poulter will try to put aside their Ryder Cup camaraderie. Donald will seek to ruffle up more than Moore's tie, and Rory McIlroy, fresh from also missing the Players, has a tough day-one opponent in two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen.
"It's nice to go head-to-head with someone for a couple of days," McIlroy said. "It's different. I would be comfortable having a chat going down the fairway in stroke-play. Even the first couple of rounds at Augusta, playing with Rickie (Fowler) and Jason (Day), we were bouncing off each other. But you have to be a bit more poker-faced [in match play]."
The championship is in its 47th year and has undergone several changes in sponsor and format. Yet its list of former champions is nothing less than golfing royalty and illustrates how players have always held this event in high esteem since Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event in 1964. Please be upstanding also for Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam.
Whoever wins on Sunday, though, will have a long way to go be beat Ernie Els' record of seven match-play titles. And they'll bank rather more than Palmer's original $8,000.
The groups are:
--Seve Ballesteros Group:
Lee Westwood, Anders Hansen and Aaron Baddeley
--Mark McCormack Group:
Luke Donald, Ross Fisher and Ryan Moore
--Arnold Palmer Group:
Martin Kaymer, Y.E. Yang and Seung-yul Noh
--Ian Woosnam Group:
Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Jhonattan Vegas
--Gustaf Larson Group:
Retief Goosen, Rory McIlroy and Nicolas Colsaerts
--Greg Norman Group:
Paul Casey, Alvaro Quiros and Soren Kjeldsen
--Assar Gabrielsson Group:
Charl Schwartzel, Miguel Angel JimÃ©nez and Johan Edfors
--Gary Player Group:
Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter and Paul Lawrie