Talk about a pain in the neck.
Tori Taniguchi’s withdrawal from this week’s World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship has set up an intriguing first-round matchup at the top of the draw.
England’s Lee Westwood, playing in his first Accenture Match Play as the world’s No. 1-ranked player, now faces former European Ryder Cup teammate Henrik Stenson in a first-round match in the Bobby Jones bracket. Stenson actually has as many PGA TOUR wins as Westwood (two), and they have come in bigger events (the 2007 Match Play and the 2009 PLAYERS Championship).
But Stenson has been colder than someone trying to hit a ball out of the water in his skivvies (which he famously did in the 2009 CA Championship at Doral). Stenson has had just one top-10 finish on the PGA TOUR since 2009 (granted, that was a third at last year’s British Open).
While this may not become the most lopsided first-round matchup since Tiger Woods thumped Stephen Ames 9-and-8 in 2006, it would be a shock to see Westwood lose to a player so out of form.
On the other hand, Westwood has never made it past the second round in his 10 previous starts at Match Play. Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: Stenson will last longer than he did last year, when he quit against Ben Crane after just one hole because of the flu. But not by much.
The focus in Wednesday’s first round also will be on Woods, the three-time Match Play champion trying to end the longest winless drought of his career. Woods faces former British Open runner-up Thomas Bjorn, who won the Qatar Masters earlier this month.
Match Play has long been Woods’ forte — in addition to his three World Match Play titles, he also won the U.S. Junior Amateur and the U.S. Amateur six consecutive years. But this is new ground for Woods as he continues to re-tool his swing while trying to find the form that had him atop the world rankings for more than five years.
If Woods wins, he faces a formidable second-round foe in either two-time Match Play champion Geoff Ogilvy or three-time major winner Padraig Harrington (another cheeky first-round matchup). Woods, in other words, faces a stout challenge to get back into the winner’s circle this week.
In the Sam Snead bracket, Ernie Els, who has usually not fared well in Match Play (he has a fourth and a fifth, but hasn’t made it past the second round his other eight tries) goes against Jeff Overton. Overton has yet to win a PGA TOUR title, but he showed a fiery nature with his “Boom, baby!” shouts at last year’s Ryder Cup. This is a classic matchup of laid-back vs. amped-up.
The other most interesting first-round matchup is when buddies Hunter Mahan and Sean O’Hair square off in the Gary Player bracket. Not only do they share the same coach, Sean Foley, but they also are frequent practice-round partners. O’Hair has the better Match Play record — he’s won his first-round match all three times and was fifth in 2009, while Mahan has never made it past the second round in three tries. But Mahan is hotter, having finished second at Pebble Beach and sixth at Torrey Pines.
Matchups We Would Like To See: Upsets are common place in this event, where a hot putter can carry just about anyone to a victory, so wishing for a matchup is dicey at best. But it would be nice to see these stars line up thusly:
Bubba Watson vs. Dustin Johnson (second round, Snead): ShotLink would get quite a workout between these bombers. This could double as a Long Drive Competition.
Phil Mickelson vs. Rickie Fowler (second round, Ben Hogan): Mickelson gets a look at a younger version of himself. Both play aggressively and have that certain flair for the moment, not to mention they were Ryder Cup teammates.
Alvaro Quiros vs. Ian Poulter (second round, Hogan): These guys should play on runways, not fairways, with their sense of fashion. Both have plenty of substance to go with their style: Poulter is the defending champion and Quiros won at Dubai earlier this month.
Francesco Molinari vs. Edoardo Molinari (quarterfinals, Jones): The brothers from Italy would each have to win their first three matches to meet in the finals of the Jones bracket. The last time Francesco played in a prominent match, he was soundly beaten by Woods in last year’s Ryder Cup.
And the winner is …
Graeme McDowell has been the world’s best golfer since last year’s U.S. Open. The draw could have him facing high-seeded Heath Slocum (No. 15), Ross Fisher (No. 10) and Stewart Cink (No. 14) in the first three rounds. Even if McDowell has to face tougher competition, he has plenty of confidence after claiming the decisive point in last year’s Ryder Cup.
Craig Dolch is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.