MARANA, Ariz. – Padraig Harrington might feel a lot better about his chances in the Match Play Championship if he were still playing junior golf in Ireland. He thinks he’d probably make more birdies, anyway.
“I used to love match play as a kid. It was my favorite,” Harrington said. “When I was an amateur, I was shooting scores I couldn’t shoot today. I was shooting well under par. Now, professional golf has taken that out of me. We play so much stroke play that you’re cautious. You don’t want to make mistakes. Professional golf knocks the edge off you.”
Harrington and 63 other players will be looking for that edge when the first World Golf Championship gets under way Wednesday in the high desert of Dove Mountain.
No other tournament on the PGA Tour schedule is like this one.
There is more drama, excitement and heartache found in the opening round than the final round because of simple match: There are 32 matches, meaning 32 players will be happy and 32 players not so much.
“It’s horrific, at least the first 10 minutes,” said Geoff Ogilvy when asked to describe how it feels to lose in any round. And this is a guy who has won the Accenture Match Play Championship twice and was second once.
“If the you finish top 10 in a tournament, you can find something good about it,” said Ogilvy, who plays Harrington in the opening round. “You can’t find anything good about losing at match play.”
Adding to the buzz is that for the first time this year, all the best players in the world are at one tournament.
Lee Westwood, the No. 1 player in the world for the last four months, is the fifth player to be the top seed since this tournament began in 1999. The others were Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Steve Stricker.
Westwood opens against Henrik Stenson, who got into the 64-man field when Toru Taniguchi of Japan withdrew with a neck injury.
Robert Karlsson, who would seem to be tough in match play, had never won a match until last year. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. Three years ago he drew Paul Casey in the opening round and shot 65, only to lose. Casey shot 64,
So when he was asked if he looked forward to the week, Karlsson paused.
“Yes and no,” the Swede said with a smile. “It’s a bit funny. It’s good fun, and we don’t play it very often. I do enjoy the Ryder Cup match play a little more. This one here, the week can become so short. One year I was there for less than three hours.”
That was in 2007 when he played 11 holes before losing to Stephen Ames.
The matches are 18 holes of anything goes, and that now includes the championship match. Instead of a 36-hole final on Sunday, the format has been changed to 18-hole semifinals Sunday morning, immediately followed by an 18-hole final match.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany is the No. 2 seed and will play big-hitting Seung-yul Noh of South Korea. Woods, the No. 3 seed, faces longtime friend Thomas Bjorn, while fourth-seeded Phil Mickelson gets Brendan Jones.
So what’s the secret?
“I don’t think there are any secrets,” said Casey, twice a runner-up in this tournament, including last year to Ian Poulter. “It’s the guys making long putts. That’s really difficult to face. And that could be anybody.”
Stricker thinks the big hitters have an advantage on desert courses. He remembers facing Angel Cabrera on a different Dove Mountain course and watching him putt for eagle six times. “That’s hard to compete against it,” Stricker said.
There have been players who didn’t bring enough clothes for the week, not believing they would last as long as they did. And there have been players – a lot of them – going home with a suitcase full of clothes that haven’t been worn.
So what’s the best attitude to bring into such a fickle week?
“However I went in during 2006 and 2009,” Ogilvy said, referring to the two years he won. “It’s a weird tournament. In ’09, I played horrific the first three days – OK, horrific might be an exaggeration – but I didn’t play great. I went to 19 holes with (Kevin) Sutherland. Shingo (Katayama) let me off the hook at 18. And all of a sudden on the weekend, I found something.”
He said he played his best golf of the year in the final, even though he thought he shouldn’t have advanced out of the first round.
Stewart Cink was the only American to reach the quarterfinals last year, and he was a finalist in 2008 when Woods won for the third time, a 6-and-5 victory that was the biggest margin for a championship match.
Cink loves the format, citing the “do-or-die” situations it brings.
“The finality of every shots brings out a new level of focus,” Cink said. “I’ve studied every possible direction you can study trying to figure out how to get that focus into my stroke-play game. But there’s something about match play. That’s why we see such a high level of golf at the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup and at Accenture. I just love the format.”
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