Match Play bracket presents plenty of intrigue

Tiger Woods during the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

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Dove Mountain awaits.

All right, so it doesn’t rank up there in sex appeal with Augusta National or Pebble Beach, St. Andrews or Royal Melborne – other spots along the 2011 PGA Tour – but Dove Mountain does feature what the other vaunted sites do not. That is, the most fun day of the year for pro golf junkies.

It will take place Wednesday when the Accenture Match Play Championship commences at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain. The season’s first summit meeting of the world’s top ranked golfers features 32 matches on Day 1, a session that is almost too much to digest.

The fun will continue with 16 matches Thursday, but after that . . . well, there are no guarantees. It is, for sure, the only tournament of the year that starts with its best stuff and then drops off on the buzz-meter, but why concern ourselves with that possibility. Instead, let’s focus on the fun that awaits Wednesday.

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The five most intriguing matches

No. 12 Ian Poulter vs. No. 53 Stewart Cink – Twitter, twitter on the phone, who’s the fairest of them all? Just picture it: Poulter makes a putt at the first to go 1 up, and he tweets that before they reach the second tee, then Cink birdies the second to square the match and his followers know that before drives are hit at the third. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey should referee this match.

No. 8 Steve Stricker vs. No. 57 Matteo Manassero – Stricker won this World Golf Championship in 2001, when the kid from Italy was 7. Heck, Stricker has a daughter, Maria who is only six years younger than Manassero. But given that we’ve had a steady diet of Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa, and Rickie Fowler, here’s a chance to watch another young man who is just silly enough to think he can win against the world’s best.

No. 14 Dustin Johnson vs. No. 51 Mark Wilson – We will take a wild guess and suggest that rarely, if at all, will Wilson stand in the fairway to look at Johnson and ask, “Am I away?” Surely one of the ultimate bazooka vs. popgun matches that might just be a pleasure to watch.

No. 18 Hunter Mahan vs. No. 47 Sean O’Hair – Most fun part could be the practice range session before the chaps head to the first tee. “Sean, take a look at this,” Mahan could say to his instructor, Sean Foley. “Sorry, but he’s busy at the moment,” O’Hair could say. But in truth, Mahan and O’Hair do more than share the same instructor (Foley, who also works with Justin Rose and guy by the name of Tiger Woods); they’re good friends who play a lot of practice rounds together.

No. 30 Geoff Ogilvy vs. No. 35 Padraig Harrington – Selfishly, this in the eyes of golf writers is near criminal, because two of the game’s smartest and most reflective chaps should not meet in the first round. Heck, we’re guaranteed to lose a brilliant source of information right away and that just shouldn’t happen. Beyond that, it’s a match-up between a guy who displays magnificent rhythm against one of the most fidgety grinders the game has ever known.

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This is like Duke playing Kansas in the first round, for goodness sakes

Nick Watney vs. Anthony Kim – There’s plenty of game on each side of this match to win not only this week, but at any of those four stops along the major trail. Guys who possess great power and can hop aboard a birdie train at any minute, they go about their tasks with contrasting styles – Watney a more classical swinger who manages a golf course, Kim employs brazen ferocity who hardest swing is always the next one. The winner most likely gets a chance to send No. 1 Lee Westwood packing.

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And if you love foreign intrigue . . .

Martin Kaymer vs. Seung-Yul Noh – The quiet German is No. 2 in the world, but let’s face it, America still doesn’t know its reigning PGA champion. And Noh? At 19 he’ll be playing on American soil for just the fifth time.

Charl Schwartzel vs. Ryo Ishikawa – Two years ago at Dove Mountain, Ishikawa attracted dozens of photographers – and he wasn’t even in the tournament; he was an alternate. Now a fixture on the world stage, the 19-year-old Ishikawa still attracts huge attention. That’s not something Schwartzel can relate to, but so what. The South African is a star-in-waiting.

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Oh, if a giant were to fall . . .

This is not NCAA basketball; 16s beat 1s from time to time and 15s beat 2s. Surely the PGA Tour cringes at the memory, but veteran Accenture Match Play scribes will not soon forget that opening day in 2002 when the modern-day Big 3 – Tiger Woods, David Duval, and Phil Mickelson – got ousted (by Peter O’Malley, Kevin Sutherland, and John Cook, no less).

Anyway, which of the top eight players is likely to fall victim to an upset, if one were to occur?

Maybe No. 62 Thomas Bjorn over No. 3 Woods, given the way the Dane is seemingly re-focused and the continued upheaval in the former No. 1’s game.

No. 58 Jonathan Byrd might give No. 7 McIlroy fits and given that he’s come from the other side of the world, No. 61 Brendan Jones may as well and give it hell against No. 4 Mickelson, whose game appears scratchy and you could question whether he even wants to be at Dove Mountain.

But after that, can’t see it. An upset, that is. No. 1 Lee Westwood (against Henrik Stenson), No. 2 Kaymer (against Noh), No. 5 Graeme McDowell (against Heath Slocum), No. 6 Paul Casey (against Richard Green), and No. 8 Stricker (against Manassero) – at least from this seat – are solid picks.

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Matches you’d look past, but shouldn’t

No. 23 Miguel Angel Jimenez vs. No. 42 Yuta Ikeda – Come on, admit it: You look at a 47-year-old guy with a ponytail and a bit of a paunch saunter to the first tee, then you see him warmup like he’s coming into the game as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter, and you say, “Hey, I play with 12 handicappers better than this guy.” Yet all the Spaniard does is get it in the hole, light up a cigar, and produce the most beautiful results with the ugliest sequence of swings this side of Jim Furyk. What’s more, the match will afford you the chance to meet a guy, Ikeda, who seemingly is one of the golf world’s biggest gate-crashers – always shows up in a major field but rarely does anything of note.

No. 13 Matt Kuchar vs. 52 Anders Hansen – Spare us the wisecracks about watching paint dry or serving up a vanilla shake. They may be unheralded and hardly show-stoppers, but Kuchar has turned into one of the world’s dynamic ball-striking machines, while Hansen rarely seems to throw in a clunker. So neither stands out in a crowd? That’s not an indictment of their golf prowess, but of our thirst for juicy storylines, not good golf.

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