MARANA, Ariz. — The WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship has 64 entrants and beautiful brackets just waiting to be filled in like the NCAA Basketball tournament. The difference is, there are no gimmes in match play golf.
Eighteen holes are not enough for the best players to separate themselves from the rest of the field. Even 72-hole events usually have a dozen players within four or five strokes of the winner.
So picking the winners of 18-hole matches, mere sprints, is unlikely. Any player in this field, which features the world’s best available 64 golfers, can shoot 63 on any given day. Tiger Woods has fallen to the likes of Peter O’Malley, Nick O’Hern, Tim Clark and Chad Campbell.
Enough with the alibis. Here, then, are the key matches and predictions on how the first round may turn out. (Wednesday’s schedule is here.)
Jones Bracket: It’s a great day when Steve Stricker, the pride of Edgerton, Wis., is the No. 1-seeded player in the field. As a former Match Play champ and No. 1 seed, Stricker literally is the guy to beat this week. He’ll get past Ross McGowan into the second round … Ryo Ishikawa and Michael Sim square off in what is this bracket’s marquee match. Ishikawa is already a superstar in his home country of Japan while Sim is the best player you still haven’t heard of. Sim wins.
Upset special: Masters champ Angel Cabrera gets surprised by the no-longer-slumping Adam Scott of Australia. Scott’s form is coming around. He broke his drought by winning in Australia during the winter (their summer).
More predictions: Ian Poulter was a Ryder Cup ace for captain Nick Faldo, and he’ll need all that skill to edge past Justin Leonard, who has finished fourth and fifth in the last two Match Plays. He’s a tough out … Anthony Kim gets the nod over Matt Kuchar … Other winners will be Robert Karlsson; Thongchai Jaidee, who played well in Dubai; and Padraig Harrington, frequently a slow starter.
Hogan Bracket: Martin Kaymer of Germany is seeded first, and he’s my pick to win the whole tournament. It may be Kaymer versus Henrik Stenson in the final. The guy won in the desert already on the European Tour. He’s long, perfect for this course, and he seems to hole more long putts — or at least come close — than anybody on either tour. He’ll beat Chad Campbell.
Upset special: Rory McIlroy, the Irish boy wonder, was fifth in his Match Play debut last year. He’s been bothered by a bad back the last few weeks, however. Beware the sick golfer? In this case, look for underrated Kevin Na to knock off Rory
More predictions: Tim Clark, former Tiger-killer, keeps getting better with age. So did Vijay Singh up to a point. Clark takes him down … Other match-winners will be Lucas Glover, Oliver Wilson (mild upset over Dubai winner Miguel Angel Jimenez), Robert Allenby and Luke Donald.
Player Bracket: The one match to watch here is Pebble Beach winner Dustin Johnson, potentially the breakout American star, versus Camilo Villegas, Colombia’s greatest golfer. Johnson played well on the whole West Coast swing, so he’s hot and confident. Go with Johnson.
Upset special: Soren Kjeldsen of Sweden is one of those guys who doesn’t beat himself. Very steady. He’s going to surprise PGA champion Y.E. Yang, who had a busy offseason and not much time to recover.
More predictions: Geoff Ogilvy, defending champion, should eliminate Sweden’s Alexander Noren. Ogilvy has a tough road. Assuming my picks are right, he’ll face Dustin Johnson in the second round, and possibly Henrik Stenson in the third … Ryan Moore, who is playing well, has a good chance against match play vet Ernie Els, but look for Els to hold on, maybe in extra holes … Nick Watney plays Uta Ikeda (no relation to the cheap-o furniture outlets). Watney is the superior ballstriker … Other winners should be Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson.
Snead Bracket: It’ll be fun to watch monster-long Alvaro Quiros play not-so-long-hitting Mike Weir. Weir is very good at match play, but this desert course really rewards length, so Quiros is the pick.
Upset special: It’s hard to call it an upset, but Brian Gay, another not-long hitter, takes out power-hitting Kenny Perry.
More predictions: Really interesting match between two finesse players, Jim Furyk and Scott Verplank. It’s anybody’s guess, and I’ll guess Furyk … Charl Schwartzel has already won twice on the European tour so he seems hotter than Hunter Mahan … Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson will beat the Molinari brothers of Italy, Edoardo and Francesco … Other winners are Sean O’Hair and last year’s runner up, Paul Casey.
In other predictions, I’m calling for sunny and warm weather for Tucson this week … and also for the next nine straight months. Yeah, crazy stuff.