MARANA, Ariz. — With apologies to the noisemakers at the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s infamous 16th hole, the gang hanging around the margarita-maker at the Colonial Country Club, and the swells sipping vintage wine in the Lodge at Pebble Beach while looking out at golf’s most majestic view, the World Match Play Championship is the most fun week of the year. Major championships and team events excluded, of course.
The reason is that match play is the most entertaining form of golf competition. Better still, it almost always gets personal.
Yes, match play has its flaws. At this level, players don’t have enough time to separate themselves from an opponent in only 18 holes. That means predicting winners is a crapshoot since any player among the world’s 64 best can post a 64 on any given day. The word “upset” should be banned this week. Second, a stroke-play tournament requires a player to beat an entire field over 72 holes. In this event, a player must defeat only six players to win the title and there’s a good chance Tiger Woods or Lee Westwood or anyone else ordained as the world’s No. 1 player won’t be among them.
So match play doesn’t necessarily make for great champions, but it does make for great entertainment. Here are some highlights and (foolish) predictions for Wednesday’s smorgasbord of 32 matches:
Tiger Woods vs. Thomas Bjorn: The spotlight is always on Tiger in this event where he has had great success (he’s won three times) and also glaring failures. Tiger doesn’t like desert golf, but his game is reportedly coming around and nobody takes defeat more personally than him. He might be coming into this one with a chip on his shoulder. That said, Tiger’s recent play has been dazzling only in its wild inconsistency. Meanwhile, Bjorn made his comeback official by winning on the European Tour earlier this year. He is not easily intimidated and he’s playing well. For that reason, the mildly surprising pick here is Bjorn.
Geoff Ogilvy vs. Padraig Harrington: The winner of this match faces the winner of Tiger’s match. Now that’s a tough way to start off a tournament. Harrington usually doesn’t play well this early in the year as he’s still in tinkering mode and Ogilvy, a two-time champion, has basically owned this tournament since it moved to the desert. Gotta be Ogilvy.
Martin Kaymer vs. Seung-yul Noh: Your PGA Champion is also the No. 1 player in the world, according to the Golf.com media voter poll. This course is well-suited to a bomber like Kaymer, and he loves desert golf. Noh, a promising young Korean, is probably the best player in the world you’ve never heard of. It wouldn’t be shocking if Noh stunned the German-he’s that good. But Kaymer gets the nod.
Dustin Johnson vs. Mark Wilson: Call it battle of David and Goliath, Mutt and Jeff, or Cagney and Lacey. Wilson, the pride of Wisconsin, has already won two Tour events this year playing his curd-loving brand of small ball. This course totally favors Johnson, who is as long as anybody on Tour. There will be two surprises on Wednesday. First surprise: Johnson makes it to the first tee on time this week. Second surprise: Wilson takes him down with bodacious putting as he goes for a third win to kick off what we may someday call the “Mark Wilson Era.”
Zach Johnson vs. Justin Rose: Great putters are tough to beat in match play. This could be a quick match as a lot of second putts won’t be necessary. The Zach Attack is tough in match play, but Rose broke through last year and is on his way to big things, maybe even this week.
Rory McIlroy vs. Jonathan Byrd: McIlroy might be overrated at No. 7 in the world based on what he’s done as opposed to how he’s looked while doing it. Byrd is underrated and already has a win this year. Byrd flies off with this one.
Hunter Mahan vs. Sean O’Hair: The battle of the American young-ish guns. This could be a good one. Flip a coin, but give Mahan the edge based on his play so far this season.
Ernie Els vs. Jeff Overton: Ernie was all but unbeatable in match play during the first half of his pro career. But La Costa drove him bonkers and he hasn’t done well in the desert. Overton is one of those pesky great putters who’s so hard to defeat in match play, but experience will be the difference for Els.
Charl Schwartzel vs. Ryo Ishikawa: A showdown between two guys who can rightly be called “the future of the game.” Ryo, who put up a 58 in a win last year in Japan, will have an army of Japanese media following his every move and they’ll have plenty to like. It’s Ishikawa.
Steve Stricker vs. Matteo Manassero: The crafty veteran from Edgewood, Wis., has played the best golf of his life the last five years. Now he meets up with the 17-year-old Italian whom some have compared to Seve Ballesteros. Manassero is impressive and if Stricker gets past him, he’ll face another young gun in Schwartzel or Ryo. There’s a good chance the sum of the ages of his first two opponents will be less than the fortysomething Stricker, since he’s going to take down all comers.
Ian Poulter vs. Stewart Cink: Bet you never thought this would be considered a marquee matchup one day. But Poulter won this event in impressive style a year ago and Cink backed up some fine match-play efforts with a British Open title two years ago. Cink is tough to handle in this event, but Poulter prevails in a battle of wills.
Graeme McDowell vs. Heath Slocum: You can make a strong case that McDowell is actually the world’s No. 1 player, but Slocum is a quiet, underrated competitor who will put up an excellent fight. This one has surprise potential, but McDowell moves on.
Lee Westwood vs. Henrik Stenson: When Stenson won this tournament a few years back, he looked like the No. 1 player in the world. His game has slipped badly the last two years and he only just squeaked into this field after Toru Taniguchi withdrew. He’s posted only one score in the 60s this year. Enjoy your quick exit at the hands of mighty Westwood.
Nick Watney vs. Anthony Kim: Kim has something to prove after missing part of last season with a thumb injury and being passed over for the Ryder Cup team. Kim advances.
Phil Mickelson vs. Brendan Jones: Meet the unluckiest Aussie in the world. First, he drew Tiger Woods in an opening-round WGC match during Woods’ first post-surgery tournament in 2009. Now he gets Phil. Hey, he’s just happy to be among the top 64. Phil’s presence this week is a nice surprise for everyone, since he had strongly hinted he wouldn’t play this week. Can’t let him go home after only one match — what else would Golf Channel have to talk about? Mickelson moves on.
Louis Oosthuizen vs. Bo Van Pelt: The man affectionately known as “Shrek,” your reigning British Open champion, is no one-hit wonder. Look for Oosthuizen to take it deep this week, if only to torment those golf writers who rely on spell check.
Rickie Fowler vs. Peter Hanson: Meet the sleeper pick to win it all this week. Yes, that’s him disguised as the Orange Dreamsicle or maybe the Pink Flamingo. Hey, it looks good on him. Fowler is a match-play ace and, like Poulter last year, this tournament is a great chance for him to score his breakthrough win in the U.S.