MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — Nestled in rugged mountain foothills heavily dotted by saguaro cactus, The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club could double as a Western movie set.
The fifth and sixth holes even back into a box canyon, conjuring images of Wild West villains lurking behind rocks waiting to ambush.
It’s a fitting setting for the tension-packed Match Play Championship.
“You’re under pressure from the first tee,” defending champion Ian Poulter said Wednesday, a day before the first round at Dove Mountain.
“You’re going to see some upsets. You’re also going to see some guys get through shooting 1- or 2-over par. You just have to beat your opponent. … You just have to play your game and hopefully that’s good enough.”
Poulter, a 4-and-2 winner over Paul Casey last year in an all-England final, faced Stewart Cink in the opening match of the tournament. They were scheduled to tee off at 7:25 a.m., barring a frost delay on the high desert course north of Tucson.
“It’s going to be cold,” said Poulter, seeded 12th in the 64-man field. “You’re going to have to have the mitts on for the front nine.”
Tiger Woods is trying to win the event for the fourth time and first on the Jack Nicklaus-designed course. He won in 2003 and 2004 at La Costa in California and 2008 at The Gallery down the road at Dove Mountain.
Last year, Woods overshadowed the tournament from afar when he spoke publicly for the first time since revelations of his extramarital affairs.
“It’s a great event,” said Woods, seeded third. “We don’t get a chance to play too many match play events. We play stroke play all the time. The only time you get a match play event is if you make the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup.
“We grew up playing all junior golf and all big amateur events were all match play. It goes back to how we grew up. We love it as players. It is fun to go head to head. … The only problem is you can play well and go home.”
Winless last season, Woods is making his third start of the year. He tied for 44th at Torrey Pines and tied for 20th two weeks ago in Dubai.
“Game is progressing, no doubt,” Woods said. “Had to work on a few things that we found that was not right in Dubai, which was good. And it feels like we’re heading in the right direction. Just have to work on it and solidify it.”
If Woods beats Thomas Bjorn on Thursday, he’ll face the Geoff Ogilvy-Padraig Harrington winner in the second round. Ogilvy won in 2006 and 2009.
“Got to take it one match at a time. One opponent at a time,” Woods said.
Top-ranked Lee Westwood faced Henrik Stenson in the first round. Stenson got into the field when Toru Taniguchi withdrew because of a neck injury.
“It’s a nice week, different from your usual stroke play,” Westwood said. “It’s exciting, you don’t know what to expect, throws up some surprises. And the first day is probably one of the most exciting days of the year as far as golf spectators are concerned, watching all the different matches going on.”
Second-seeded Martin Kaymer, the PGA champion who won last month in Abu Dhabi, played Seung-yul Noh, and No. 4 Phil Mickelson faced Brendan Jones.
Dubai winner Alvaro Quiros got into the Western spirit Tuesday, playing cowboy before turning his attention to first-round opponent Y.E. Yang.
“They were trying to teach me how to throw a lasso,” Quiros said. “It was fun. … For me, coming from Spain, we have nothing similar. This is something spectacular.”
The small, undulating greens put accuracy at a premium, muting some of his length advantage on the par 5s on the 7,791-yard course.
“It’s not a typical golf course that the long hitters have a big advantage,” Quiros said. “Just because, obviously, I can reach the par 5s, but the greens are too small. So, most of the time you can be in trouble if you miss the green hitting in two.”
DIVOTS: The championship match has been reduced from 36 to 18 holes, and the semifinals were moved from Saturday to Sunday morning. … Tim Clark withdrew Wednesday because of an elbow injury. He was replaced by J.B. Holmes. Because the bracket was set, Holmes took the 12th-seeded Clark’s position in the draw against Camilo Villegas. … The first-round losers will receive $45,000.