Tuesday, February 24, 2009

64 Players, One Storyline

Tiger Woods, left, and caddy Steve Williams walk to the practice range at the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play Championship Tuesday Feb. 24, 2009, in Marana, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

If you enjoy match-play golf – and I’m a big fan of it – the first round of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship makes Wednesday one of the most fun days on the PGA Tour schedule.

You get 32 matches guaranteed to produce a handful of shockers and enough storylines to make you dizzy.

This year, there is only one storyline – Tiger Woods’ return.

You may have heard about it.

I’m not ready to go as far as some have and say it’s comparable to Ben Hogan’s return from a near fatal auto accident. The guy had knee surgery, took eight months off and now he’s back, almost sure to be as good or better than ever.

If the plot revolves around Tiger, the subplot spins around Brendan Jones, the 64th-seeded Aussie whose name is penciled in opposite Woods’ in the first-round bracket.

If you haven’t caught up with Jones’ sudden celebrity, he’s 35 with one Nationwide Tour victory and eight wins on the Japan Tour. He was home in Australia, enjoying some down time, when he got word he was in the field at Tucson and, surprise, drew Tiger.

Jones knows what he’s up against.

In a first-person piece on pgatour.com, Jones said he “doesn’t want to do what Stephen Ames did and upset (Woods),” referencing the beatdown Ames took from Tiger after a snarky comment prior to their match.

In fact, Jones sounds like a guy just thrilled to be in Woods’ presence.

“I want to meet him and try to be nice and, at the end of the day, win, lose or draw, if I could have a drink or go out to lunch, it would be nice,” Jones wrote.

Maybe he’s trying to intimidate Tiger with niceness.

Jones does have one advantage – he’s from Down Under. Tiger has been eliminated by Aussies three times in this event, twice by the mysteriously successful Nick O’Hern and once by Peter O’Malley.

Still, the facts say Tiger is 31-6 in this event.

If Tiger beats Jones, he’ll draw either Retief Goosen or Tim Clark in the second round. There’s a possible third-round match against 19-year old Rory McIlroy and the bracket also includes Mike Weir, Hunter Mahan, Camilo Villegas and Geoff Ogivly.

In other words, welcome back Tiger.

Among the things I’ll be watching early in the event are:

-- Whether Ernie Els can make a run here. He hasn’t made it past the second round of this event since 2001.

-- Phil Mickelson against Angel Cabrera in the first round. Bombs away.

-- The 5-12 matches. That’s the one that typically produces the upsets in the NCAA basketball tournament so why not in golf? The best 5-12 match is Dustin Johnson against Steve Stricker, though Adam Scott against Sean O’Hair isn’t bad.

-- Davis Love III against Henrik Stenson in the first round. If Love is going to vault up the world rankings and secure his place at the Masters, a winning streak this week would do it.
So, does Tiger win in his first tournament back?

That’s asking a lot, even of Tiger, and especially in match play where one hot round can do a guy in.

I’m going with Phil Mickelson.