Match Play notes: Tiger no sure thing in 1st round

Tiger Woods reacts to his missed putt on the 17th hole during the first round of the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play Championship.

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MARANA, Ariz. – Seems like just yesterday we were waiting for the lifts to open and the ski patrol to declare the hills groomed and ready so that Luke Donald could take on Martin Kaymer in the gold-medal race for the World Slalom Championship.

Ah, just the memory of that bitter cold day and freakish snow blast sends shivers through the system as we prepare for fifth Accenture Match Play Championship visit to Dove Mountain. The good news is, more seasonable temperatures are expected to accompany this year’s edition, so sunshine and warmth – not frost and snow – are expected to envelope the 64 players who have gathered.

Now snow and skiing may be what is on Phil Mickelson’s agenda this week (a family vacation has kept the lefthander away), but pretty much everyone else of note is here, including Tiger Woods. Now the course in play for a fourth-straight year, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, has not treated Woods kindly (he lost in the third round in 2009, did not play in 2010, and got ousted in Round 1 a year ago), but given that he’s a three-time champion of this WGC, it is understandable that you race to the bracket sheet to see who is providing the competition Wednesday for the former No. 1.

And there it is, in Match 20, halfway down the always-tough Sam Snead bracket – Woods vs. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.

Vegas bookmakers would agree with most observers of this golf business and tell you that Woods is an overwhelming favorite, but given the dynamics of this match-play stuff and the quirky nature of the Ritz Carlton GC, who is to say it’s not a toss-up?

“A lot of different things can happen,” said Charl Schwartzel, who has drawn Gary Woodland in Wednesday’s opening match. “It’s one of those weeks where you can pull off a win by not playing that good. No other week works that way (when) if you don’t play well you are not going to win the tournament.”

So with that serving as an introduction, here’s a quick glance at a little of this and a bit of that as we try and avoid the maniacal jumping cholla:

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STRONG STARTER: Defending champion Luke Donald has a perfect record in seven first-round matches, which is bad news for Ernie Els. Then again, Els is hardly your typical 64th seed. Usually, the last name on the sheet at this tournament is a guy who has traveled thousands of miles – be it Peter O’Malley or Brendan Jones – or been at the tail end of his career – Nick Faldo in 1999 – but The Big Easy hardly fits that bill.

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AND TWO OTHERS WHO GET GOING QUICKLY: Rory McIlroy, who has won each of his three first-round matches, will take on unheralded South African George Coetzee in Round 1. Ben Crane is undefeated in four first-round matches, but he has a tough assignment – Bubba Watson.

• • •

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• • •

THEN THERE ARE THOSE WHO CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET OUT OF THE STARTING GATE: Dustin Johnson, who’ll take on Jim Furyk, has lost in Round 1 in all three trips to the Accenture, while both Francesco Molinari and Louis Oosthuizen are 0-2. The loser will thus be in contention to challenge Fred Funk for dubious distinction in this WGC. Funk lost all seven of his first-round matches.

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SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE: Martin Laird lost in Round 1 in his Accenture debut a year ago, while Alvaro Quiros has lost in the first round all three trips. For sure, things will be different for one of them, because they draw each other in Match 12 Wednesday.

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AH, WE MEET AGAIN: Graeme McDowell was sent packing a year ago in Round 2 by Y.E. Yang, 3 and 2. Sure enough, they’ll meet at the first tee Wednesday – and in the first match, no less. (While we don’t expect snow, a 7:25 a.m. local time, it will put a chill in your step.)

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THEY DON’T GIVE CUPCAKES TO THIS KID: Here for the second straight year, Matteo Manassero draws Webb Simpson in Round 1. Last year, Manassero beat Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel before losing to Luke Donald.

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YOU MIGHT NOT RECOGNIZE ANYONE: Paul Lawrie has rejuvenated his career, so he’s back at the Accenture for the first time since 2003. How long has it been? Consider that of the eight opponents Lawrie faced in 2000-03, only Tiger Woods is in the field.

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WELCOME BACK: Greg Chalmers is in the field for a second time, but the first time was in 2001, way back when he lost to Tom Lehman right out of the gates.

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FINALLY, WE CAN SPEAK THE NATIVE LANGUAGE: Miguel Angel Jimenez is in the tournament for the 11th time, Sergio Garcia for the 10th time. Combined, they have played 41 games, yet when they step to the first tee in Match 23, it will mark the first time they’ve faced a fellow Spaniard.

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BROTHERS IN FUTILITY: No, they’re not related, but Peter Hanson, Soren Hansen, and Anders Hansen share misery when it comes to the Accenture. Hanson, who will play Jason Dufner, is 1-5 in the tournament, while Anders Hansen, who will take on K.T. Kim, is also 1-5. Soren Hansen isn’t here, but he’s 0-3.

• • •

Are you ready for some Bracket Mania? Fill out a free bracket for the WGC-Match Play and enter to win tons of prizes from Cobra-Puma, EA Sports, Golf Pride, Big Green Egg or Fujikura!

• • •

HE’S A BIG FAN: Two weeks ago, Pebble Beach. One week ago, Riviera. Next up in the classic rota, Ritz-Carlton GC. Well, not exactly, because you won’t hear wide-spread acclaim for this desert course some 3,000 above sea level, not with massively wide fairways and severely sloping greens that come with an abundance of false fronts. Yet don’t go thinking that there’s great disdain for the course with players, because Schwartzel embaces. “I love it,” said the South African. “It’s similar to places I love back home. It looks the same, feels the same, and I have a good feeling when I get here.”

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SHALL WE BOOK ANOTHER DATE? Lee Westwood is stuck in a frustrating rut here at the Accenture. In 11 appearances, he has failed to make it past the second round. Each of his last two visits have met with the same result – a loss in Round 2 to Nick Watney. So it’s interesting to note that Westwood and Watney could meet again this time around, though it wouldn’t be until Round 3. Shockingly, that would translate into improvement for the Englishman.

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NEW TO THE CLUB: Of the 64 players in the field, 11 are making their debuts in the Accenture World Match Play Championship. Of those 11, you’d have to give a gold start to Kyle Stanley for having travelled the longest road in the world rankings. A year ago this week, Stanley was No. 383 in the world. South African George Coetzee was No. 320 a year ago, Keegan Bradley No. 221. Of those 11, four are making their World Golf Championship debut – Stanley, Coetzee, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and Sang-moon Bae.

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