MARANA, Ariz. — Tiger Woods was the only player to decline a press conference in the media center on the eve of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Thirteen others obliged while Woods chose to hold court to a scrimmage on a corner of the clubhouse just off a parking lot. Woods, ranked 20th in the world, looked happy enough, having recently spent time with his children. This week could be just what his inconsistent game needs. He has struggled to string three good rounds together this year but the kill-or be-killed match-play format may hide his deficiencies. No need to keep a score; just rip the heart out of your opponent.
Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano is the man in the firing line for the first round. And he’s already committed the cardinal sin for players who draw Woods: the Spaniard said Tiger is beatable.
“He’s probably not at his best,” said Fernandez-Castano, who is ranked 48th. “If I play well, I can beat him. He’s not going to be as dominant as he used to be.”
Woods has handed out revenge beatings over the years to those he feels have slighted his majesty. “I feel exactly the same way as he does,” Woods said sternly in response. “I feel he’s beatable, too.”
Fernandez-Castano may find he is the latest victim of the Be Careful What You Say About Tiger Club. Stephen Ames hasn’t opened his mouth since Woods flattened him, 9 and 8, at this event in 2006.
But Tiger claims he has mellowed and no longer feels the need to motivate himself by what his opponents say. Nobody believed him. “It’s just an opinion,” Woods said. “At the end of the day, when I’m retired, I think I will have mastered a pretty good record. We don’t get the opportunity to go head-to-to-head very often. Here it’s eyeball-to-eyeball. It’s a one-off.”
Fernandez-Castano can expect a death stare on the first tee.
“There are times when, yeah, I get angry,” Woods said when asked a question about frustration. “And I get angry on purpose to get my energy up.”
No one will even notice if Fernandez-Castano, known as Gonzo, loses. But if Woods should fail, he’s the one who will end up looking like a Muppet. But Woods has a sterling 32-8 record at this championship, with three titles.. That should be enough class to see off the Spaniard. Mind you, Gonzo is as flaky as Tiger with the flat stick. They may have to settle the match with a closest-to-the-hole playoff on the practice putting green.
In the Bobby Jones bracket, World No.1 Luke Donald begins his title defense against bottom seed Ernie Els. The South African snuck in to the event because Phil Mickelson’s children are on school vacation and Lefty decided to go play dad instead of golf. Els is more Big Queasy than Big Easy these days, having slipped to No.68 in the ranking, but Donald is only too aware of Els’s pedigree. He won Europe’s Volvo World Match Play Championship seven times when it was played at the end of his garden in Wentworth, England. But Donald will also know that Els is no desert rat — he has a terrible record in this championship.
Just like last year, Donald arrived for this shootout having barely broken 80 at Riviera Country Club. In 2011, he missed the cut. Last Sunday it was a rare final round blowout that included a wretched run of six consecutive bogeys. The 34-year-old saw no cause for concern, instead feeling the karma of being back in the valley of Dove Mountain.
“I obviously have great memories here,” Donald said. “It was the best I ever played. It proved something not only to myself, but also to everyone else in the way I won. My short game was particularly good. I was able to demoralize my opponents by not giving them anything. Even when I missed greens, I was getting up and down.”
Donald’s English Ryder Cup buddy Lee Westwood has less reason to be cheerful about the coming week. He has never advanced past the second round. The last time the Westwood was on a golf course, he stormed off in a huff after blowing his lead in the Dubai Desert Classic and making a mess of the 18th to lose to Rafael Cabrera-Bello. Westwood was so angry he turned green and his shirt ripped. He was the Incredible Sulk.
“I was being a bit of a drama queen on Twitter,” said Westwood, who paid a visit last week to Buckingham Palace to collect his Order of the British Empire award from Her Majesty.