MARANA, Ariz. – The best Wednesday in golf – the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play – is almost here. Here’s 5 Things you need to know on the eve of the first round:
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1. HISTORIC MATCH: Tiger Woods didn’t touch a club for a week after his victory last month at the Farmers Insurance Open, then spent the next two weeks preparing for this event, including his first round with President Barack Obama. Woods is a three-time champion of the Accenture, but hasn’t advanced past the second round in each of his past three appearances. “It’s pot luck in these 18-hole sprints like this,” Woods said. “It’s imperative to get off to a quick start and get up on your opponent early.”
He comes to Dove Mountain after playing with the President this past weekend in Florida. “He’s just a wonderful person to be around,” Woods said. “We won.” Obama is the second president to play with Woods, who also played with Bill Clinton.
Woods will face former Isleworth neighbor Charles Howell III in the first round. Woods beat Howell, then 17, in the quarterfinals of the 1996 U.S. Amateur; Woods won his third and final U.S. Amateur that week at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon.
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2. VACATION’S OVER: Rory McIlroy is preparing for just his third competitive round of the year. He missed the cut the last time we saw him, at the Abu Dhabi Championship, when he made his debut with Nike equipment. He’s been to the French Alps, Monaco and Florida since then, on vacation with Caroline Wozniacki and then with his swing instructor, Michael Bannon, in Florida. Now McIlroy is in Arizona for an undetermined amount of time.
“When I was packing my bags the other night, I’m thinking, how many shirts do I bring, how many pairs of pants and everything?” he said. “It’s one of those weeks where you just have to try and get through every round.”
This is McIlroy’s fifth appearance here. He was runner-up last year, advanced to the second round in 2010 and 2011 and made the quarterfinals in his U.S. pro debut in 2009. McIlroy will face good friend Shane Lowry of Ireland in the first round. The No. 64 seed has knocked off the No. 1 seed three times in the Accenture Match Play’s 14-year history.
McIlroy said he prepared with Bannon over the previous 10 days, and has “turned a corner” with his swing. “I’ve got it back on track,” he said. This is the first of three consecutive events for McIlroy. He’ll defend his Honda Classic title next week before going to the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
“I’ll know much more … after getting on this little three-week run,” the World No. 1 said. As will we, and we’ll be interested to see what we learn.
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3. ON THE DEFENSIVE: Before winning last year’s Match Play, Hunter Mahan had never made it past the Round of 16. What did he learn during that week, which culminated with a victory over McIlroy in the final?
“You have to play good,” he said. “That’s the only thing that matters. There’s no sort of lucky charm or anything like that.
“I put the ball in play a lot and hit a lot of greens. But in the end, it’s all about making birdies and making a few putts, and I was able to do that last year.”
Mahan had 35 birdies in 96 holes last year, and none of his final five matches reached the 18th hole. He didn’t trail after the third hole of the second round, a span of 74 holes. Mahan was just the third player to win the Accenture Match Play Championship while in their 20s (Tiger Woods, 2003 and 2004; Geoff Ogilvy, 2006).
Mahan has played steady golf in the four weeks preceding his title defense. He’s finished no worse than 16th in those four events, including an eighth-place showing last week at Riviera. Mahan faces Matteo Manassero, who’s never lost in the first round, Wednesday.
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4. COLD FRONT: It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but it would be unwelcome. Some harsh weather is forecast to hit Dove Mountain on Wednesday. The high temperature is 51 degrees, with a low of 32. The forecast also calls for a 70-percent chance of rain and winds in excess of 20 mph. There’s talk of snow coming to Dove Mountain. Martin Kaymer may need to reinstate his snood.
Inclement weather has less of an impact on this event because a player only is competing against the other guy in his group, not against someone with a tee time several hours later. “The weather is not going to change in a minute between the shots you’re playing and when your partner is playing,” Lee Westwood said. “I think the weather is just a case of getting your head down and getting on with it.”
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5. SHORT SHOTS: At least one of the four No. 1 seeds has lost in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship in each of the last seven years. The last time all four No. 1 seeds won their first-round matches was 2005 when Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen were all victorious. The top four seeds this week are Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Luke Donald and Louis Oosthuizen. Oosthuizen is one of seven South Africans in the field. … A dozen players in this year’s field are making their first Match Play start: Jamie Donaldson, Marcus Fraser, Stephen Gallacher, Robert Garrigus, Branden Grace, Russell Henley, Shane Lowry, David Lynn, Thorbjorn Olesen, Scott Piercy, Richie Ramsay and Marcel Siem. Henley is the only player making his World Golf Championship debut. … Fredrik Jacobson only got in the Match Play field when Brandt Snedeker withdrew due to injury. The top 64 available players in the OWGR as of Feb. 10 gained entry into the Match Play, but the seeds were set based on the Feb. 17 OWGR. Jacobson finished third at last week’s Northern Trust Open to improve from 66th to 47th in the world ranking, the biggest final-week improvement of any player in the field. … Four players made the Match Play field after starting the year outside the top 100 in the OWGR: Richard Sterne (154th to 57th) Russell Henley (131st to 58th), Chris Wood (139th to 59th) and Charles Howell III (117th to 66th).