WGC-Accenture Match Play marks first global gathering of the year

Steve Stricker is the top seed at this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Golf at the highest level has become such a global game it's tougher than ever to pinpoint the best professional tour, the most fertile country for world-class players, the most impressive young talent, or even, in the absence of Tiger Woods, the top player.

With Woods out indefinitely, the game is a land grab contested by old reliables like Kenny Perry, 49, Steve Stricker, 42, and Vijay Singh, 46; global stars like Padraig Harrington and Geoff Ogilvy; and several would-be No. 1s including (but not limited to) Ryo Ishikawa, Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy and Michael Sim.

No tournament better exemplifies the game's current state than the frenzied free-for-all that is the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at 7,849-yard Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Marana, Ariz., starting Wednesday. "There are no easy draws in this event," said Lee Westwood, the second seed this week, who will play countryman Chris Wood in the first round. "[These are the] top players in the world. So everybody's quite capable of shooting a 63 or 62 out there."

The Accenture will mark the first truly global gathering of the year, a season in which one of the biggest stories has been the shift in the balance of power between the U.S. and Europe. While fields on the PGA Tour's West Coast Swing have been largely unremarkable and at times dismal, the European Tour has flourished. That's only partly because of American players traveling overseas for appearance fees. More importantly it owes to a new look atop the World Ranking that's been years in the making. Of the top 20 players in the ranking, only six are Americans, and two (Woods and the vacationing Phil Mickelson) are not in the field this week.

Nine years after he won the tournament as the 55 seed, Stricker takes the top seed into the Accenture, but the prohibitive favorite is Ogilvy, a two-time Accenture winner and three-time finalist who has racked up an incredible 17-2 career record in this event.

Then again, perhaps the favorite is England's Ross Fisher, who advanced to the tournament's final four last season and later won the Volvo World Match Play.

The favorite certainly wouldn't seem to be Westwood, who has never advanced past the second round in nine Accenture starts, many of his losses coming in extra holes. Unlike those years, though, he is coming into this week on a good note, having won the Race to Dubai to end 2009 and notched two top-three finishes in his last two starts.

When Westwood left home Sunday, and his 5-year-old daughter Poppy asked him when he would return, he wasn't sure what to tell her and her older brother Samuel. "I said, 'Historically, Thursday; optimistically, Monday,' " he said at his press conference at Dove Mountain, prompting laughter. "They looked at me quizzically."

Theories on match play run the gamut. Do you play the man or the course? Is gamesmanship important, and how is it best and most subtly deployed?

Johnson, coming off his victory at Pebble Beach, said on Tuesday that he didn't know and didn't much care who he's playing beyond Camilo Villegas in the first round. The assembled media were incredulous; hadn't he bothered to look at a bracket? "If one is sitting next to me at breakfast, of course I'll look at it," Johnson said. "But I'm not going to go out of my way to find the bracket to see who is in it. Everyone here is good. They don't make it here because of a fluke. So it really doesn't matter who you're playing, it's going to be a tough match and you're going to have to play well."

The winner of the Johnson-Villegas match will play either Alexander Noren of Sweden or the one guy everyone would just as soon avoid in Tucson: Ogilvy. That said, it's conceivable that Ogilvy hasn't been getting much quality sleep or practice time. His wife Juli delivered the couple's third child, Harvey Jack Ogilvy, last Thursday.

Most intriguing at the Accenture are the rookies, who will show soon enough what they think of the quirky format. Ishikawa and Sim play each other for the right to face Stricker or Ross McGowan in the second round. Ryan Moore, a match-play terror as an amateur, will face Ernie Els, a match-play terror in Wentworth, England.

As always in this format, someone will shoot 66 and lose, and someone will card a 73 and win. "I think you need more luck in match play than in stroke play," Westwood said. "You can't ease your way around-you have to come out all guns blazing."

• In other action on the PGA Tour, David Duval tries to maintain momentum from last week's runner-up finish at the Mayakoba Classic in Cancun, Mexico, golf's version of the NIT. The Mayakoba, played at one of the sweetest spots if not the sweetest spot on the Tour schedule, is famous for reviving careers, most notably that of 2008 champion Brian Gay, who went on to win twice on Tour in 2009 and is in the field for this week's Accenture.

• Speaking of coming out with guns blazing, the LPGA Tour kicks off at the Honda PTT LPGA Thailand this week. Number one-ranked Lorena Ochoa, the defending champion, headlines a strong field that also includes No. 2 Jiyai Shin, Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Christina Kim. The Honda PTT will mark the beginning of the LPGA's new agreement with the Golf Channel, which will give the circuit a much-needed permanent home.

• On the Champions Tour, Tommy Armour III will try to stay hot at the Allianz Championship, starting Friday at The Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, Fla. Armour shot a final-round 61 to finish runner-up in his Champions debut at the ACE Group Classic last week. Michael Allen, who tied for fifth place at the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open last month, and Bernhard Langer are also in the field.

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