Match Play’s unique format, loaded field could bring clarity to world ranking

December 9, 2011

MARANA, Ariz. — Geoff Ogilvy didn't play well in winning the 2009 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, at least not at the start, and not by his standards.

Ogilvy needed 19 holes to beat Kevin Sutherland in the first round. Shingo Katayama then all but eliminated Ogilvy in round two, but had a misadventure on 18 to force extra holes, and hit his ball in the desert again to lose to the young Australian on the 19th hole.

That was all the opening Ogilvy needed.

"To win the whole thing you need a few things like that to happen," said Ogilvy, who would get progressively better that week to win the Accenture for the second time. "I mean you had the one year when David Toms steamrolled everyone [in '05], but that's rare."

This is the first co-sanctioned PGA/European Tour event of 2011, and it will likely eclipse the Tour's Mayakoba Classic in Cancun, the Nationwide tour's season-opening Panama Claro Championship, and the LPGA's HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore.

With the best players in America and Europe having been largely segregated this year, and the rankings generating discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, the Accenture might help make sense of things.

It could also be no help whatsoever.

This is either the easiest tournament to win — you have to beat only six players, not 143 — or the hardest. A player who has just one bad round usually won't get the chance to overcome it.

Paul Casey, a runner-up here in '09 (to Ogilvy) and '10 (to Ian Poulter) likes to focus on his own game, so much so that he doesn't look at brackets. He didn't know he would be facing Australian Richard Green in Wednesday's first round until someone mentioned it Monday.

A quarterfinalist in his first Accenture start two years ago, Rory McIlroy not only couldn't help looking at the 32 opening matches, he rattled off a handful of the most fascinating ones.

McIlroy is seeded second in the Player bracket and will face Jonathan Byrd, who has won twice in his last six starts dating back to last October but who's missed his last two cuts on the PGA Tour.

The opening match that could be one of the best: 2010 champion Ian Poulter vs. Stewart Cink, who is 21-11 lifetime here.

They will tee off at 7:25 a.m. local time, and they were hard at work on their games Monday. Cink planned to play early Tuesday to simulate the conditions of an early start at Dove Mountain, which can get chilly at 3,000 feet elevation in the High Sonoran Desert.

"It's tough not to look at the permutations and have a little giggle as to who you might be seeing the next couple of days," said Graeme McDowell, the No. 2 seed in the Hogan bracket, who will play Heath Slocum in the opening round. "I think if myself and Ross Fisher win our first round matches, we'll meet in the second round." (Fisher plays Robert Allenby on Wednesday.)

Even the winners admit luck plays a huge part, since bad golf can win and great golf can lose in match play.

Casey recalls playing Robert Karlsson on a day when the tall Swede was so hot he might have beat every player but one: Casey himself. Poulter still remembers being "7 or 8 under par" and getting beat by Retief Goosen when the Accenture was at La Costa.

The fickle format is best illustrated by the record of No. 1 Lee Westwood, who despite being good at match play — he's a Ryder Cup hero and won the 2000 Volvo World Match Play — has never made it past the second round in 10 starts. He's lost in odd ways, including a 26-hole marathon in which Scott Verplank outlasted him in the opening round in 2006. No match has gone more holes.

Although he'll face slumping Henrik Stenson in the first round, Westwood could get Nick Watney (who opens with Anthony Kim) in the second. Watney bounced Westwood in round two last year.

McDowell's list of career highlights includes not a single one at the Accenture, where he has just one victory against five losses.

He was gone by lunchtime Wednesday the last two years, and noting his 8:45 start Wednesday against Heath Slocum, said with characteristic good humor, "It could be another lunchtime debacle."

There are certain players whom no one wants to face.

Casey won the 2006 Volvo World Match Play and has been runner-up at the Accenture for two years running.

Cink, the 53 seed, whose match play resume also includes a swift demolition of Sergio Garcia in the Ryder Cup, is often a handful.

Tiger Woods, who won the Accenture in 2008, '04 and '03, will hope a change of format brings a change in fortunes since he hasn't won anywhere since November of 2009. Woods will face Thomas Bjorn, who is coming off a convincing, four-stroke win in Qatar earlier this month, in the first round.

"It's great for the game that we have this little saga going on regards to when [Woods] is going to win again," McDowell said.

Phil Mickelson, the top seed in the Hogan bracket, will face Australian Brendan Jones in the opening round, while Martin Kaymer, No. 1 in the Player bracket, will face Korea's Seung-yul Noh.

The tournament starts Wednesday, a day earlier than most stroke-play events, the first of many quirks that differentiate the Accenture.

"I like the format," Ogilvy said. "We played that way when we were kids in Australia. I enjoy the black-and-white-ness of every hole. I enjoy having 10 must-make putts every round."

Casey tells himself he's playing against the course, not the man.

"I have a game plan of how to get around this golf course," he said, "and it's something I don't flinch from."

McDowell takes special care to leave his approach shot on the proper shelf on Dove Mountain's roller-coaster greens.

Virtually every player stresses the need for a fast start, since match play is a series of sprints instead of a marathon. Even the final, which used to be played over 36 holes, has gone to just 18 this year.

"You have to make birdies," Poulter said. "It's as simple as that. If you don't make birdies, you go home."