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Match Play - a great tournament in reverse


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MARANA, Ariz. — The Match Play Championship has at least one thing going for it this week. No one has to fret when the biggest stars don't make it to the final match, or even the weekend.

That's because they're not here.

Anyone who has paid attention over the last 11 years should know that even if Tiger Woods were not embroiled in a sex scandal and Phil Mickelson was not on a vacation with his family, there would be no guarantee they would last long, anyway.

Woods is the only three-time winner of this fickle tournament, yet he has made it to the weekend only four times in 10 starts. The longest Mickelson ever lasted was Saturday in 2004, and he was gone before lunch.

This World Golf Championship brings together the best 64 players available.

For one week, it is hard to distinguish them from top to bottom.

Lee Westwood is the No. 2 seed and opens on Wednesday against Chris Wood. The only time Westwood played on Friday was in 2005, and only because the tournament started a day late at La Costa because of rain. He has never made it past the second round, although he came close last year until losing to Stewart Cink in 23 holes.

There were years when Westwood wondered if it was even worth the trouble to fly all the way from England. And when he packed his bags on Sunday night and his 5-year-old daughter asked him when he was coming home, Westwood wasn't sure what to say.

"Historically, Thursday," he told her. "Optimistically, Monday."

No one has a better record in the Match Play Championship than Geoff Ogilvy, the defending champion, who has won nearly 90 percent of his matches. He has won twice, was runner-up and had the odd year when he lost in the first round.

As he stood on the putting green Monday night at his home course of Whisper Rock north of Phoenix, he asked another member if he would be around on Sunday to host three friends who wanted to play. Then came an awkward pause, for Ogilvy knows full well that he might be able to join them.

For those who watch golf for its star power, this isn't the best week even when Woods and Mickelson are around.

Steve Stricker is the No. 1 seed. His opening match is against Ross McGowan of England, and Stricker should know better than anyone what to expect, which is anything.

Stricker was at the front end of his slump in 2001, ranked No. 90 in the world, when he got into the 64-man field because it was held in Australia right after the holidays and so many players didn't want to go. He stopped off in Florida to try to shake off the rust and snow from a Wisconsin winter and showed up as the No. 55 seed.

He then beat Padraig Harrington, Scott Verplank and Justin Leonard without ever getting to the 18th hole and ultimately beat Pierre Fulke in the championship match.

And that wasn't even the biggest stunner.

Kevin Sutherland holds a couple of tournament records — lowest seed to win (No. 62) and the only player to beat a higher seed in all six of his matches. He rumbled through a lineup of Ryder Cup players (David Duval, Paul McGinley, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Brad Faxon) before beating Scott McCarron in the 2002 final.

Stricker has won four times in his last 15 starts, his confidence higher than ever.

This week?

"It scares me a little bit, to tell you the truth," he said. "Just because you never know who you're going to get, or who you're going to run into."

Two reporters once studied the bracket and tried to come up with one first-round match that could be considered a sure thing. Woods wasn't a safe bet because he played J.B. Holmes, a big hitter on a big golf course. Mickelson played Pat Perez, who could be really good or really bad on any given day. Ernie Els is never a sure thing.

After about five minutes, they picked the same match: Vijay Singh over Peter Hanson, who was making his Match Play debut.

Sure enough, Singh won — in 20 holes.

The one peculiar part of this event is that it operates in reverse. The two most exciting days of the tournament are Wednesday and Thursday, when there are 32 and 16 matches on the golf course, most of them filled with wild swings in momentum. A year ago, Ogilvy had to go 19 holes in each of the first two rounds.

Each day features fewer matches, fewer possibilities, far less excitement. Last week at Pebble Beach, as many as four players had a chance to win in the final hour. On Sunday, only two players will have a chance over the final six hours.

It's a nightmare for television, which fills its time with more talk than golf in the final round. Woods made his return to golf after knee surgery last year at the Match Play Championship. By the time network TV took over on Saturday, he was long gone.

Stricker doesn't know much about McGowan, but this much he knows.

"I'm sure he likes having me rather than Tiger," Stricker said.