Bubba Watson tees off on the fourth hole as Rickie Fowler, second from left, looks on during a practice round at the Match Play Championship golf tournament in Marana, Arizona. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
RORY MCILROY MADE his pro debut in America, a 19-year-old from Northern Ireland identified by his freckles, the brown curls coming out of his cap and his raw talent.
He reached the quarter-finals of the Match Play Championship until he ran into the eventual champion, Geoff Ogilvy, who had to make five birdies on the back nine to hold off the kid. Ogilvy birdied the last three holes and won only one of them, the 17th, for a 2-and-1 win.
“He’s the real deal,” Ogilvy said that day. “He’s going to be around for a while.”
That was three years ago.
McIlroy returns to Dove Mountain as the reigning US Open champion after smashing records at Congressional. He is No 2 in the world and has a chance to become the second-youngest player to reach the top of the ranking if he were to win this week.
He is dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. He has already switched managers. And he plans to play a full PGA Tour schedule. It’s hard to believe he has gone through so much at such a young age.
“I feel very content and very happy at the moment with everything that’s going on,” he said. “I feel like my golf game is in good shape.”
Just don’t get the idea he’s comfortable with everything. After all, this is the Match Play Championship. There are 64 players in the single-elimination tournament, such a quirky event that not even the best can make plans to stick around Dove Mountain for more than one day.
Tiger Woods is a three-time winner of this World Golf Championship, and if he takes any motivation from the assessment of his opponent, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, he isn’t saying.
“I think he’s beatable,” the Spaniard said. “Of course, I have to play good.”
Such comments were all Woods used to need to get fired up. The most famous incident took place in 2006 at La Costa, when Stephen Ames as the No 64 seed said anything could happen, adding with a smile, “especially where he’s hitting it.”
Tiger Woods answers questions during a news conference before playing a practice round . (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Woods beat him, 9 and 8, the most lopsided-match in the history of this event. But that was when Woods was No 1 in the world. He is the No 19 seed this week at Dove Mountain.
That was when Woods was winning two majors a year. Now he hasn’t won a tour event in more than two years. Hearing these comments on Tuesday when he arrived at Dove Mountain, he smiled.
“I feel exactly the same way as he does,” Woods said. “I feel he’s beatable, too.”
Then again, that goes for all 64 players in the field. McIlroy hasn’t made it out of the second round the last two years. Lee Westwood, the No 3 player, who also has a chance to topple Luke Donald at No 1 in the world this week, has never made it out of the second round.
“It’s not quite happened for me,” Westwood said. “I suppose I’m a fairly steady to slow starter to the tournament. I ease my way into it, which you can generally do in stroke-play events. But in this, if you come out slow and shoot 1 over for the front nine, you could find yourself three or four down and only have four holes to recover.”
It all gets under way today at Dove Mountain, with Donald as the top seed and the prime example why no one can count on anything this week.
His opponent? The No. 64 seed, Ernie Els, a three-time major champion and seven-time winner of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, where the matches are contested over 36 holes instead of the 18-hole sprints in Arizona.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia, right, walks with his caddie around a water hazard after hitting a drive off the fourth tee while playing a practice round at the Match Play Championship golf tournament yesterday. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Not since the inaugural Match Play Championship in 1999 has No 1 against No 64 featured such big stars, when Woods beat Nick Faldo.
Of course, there’s a reason Els comes in as the No. 64 seed.
The Big Easy hasn’t won since the South African Open at the end of 2010, and he only got into this tournament because Phil Mickelson is taking a family vacation (Paul Casey later withdrew with injury).
Donald is coming off a year in which he won money titles on the PGA Tour and European Tour, and won a career-high four tournaments, starting with the Match Play Championship.
Donald was so dominant at Dove Mountain last year that he never played the 18th hole all week in competition.
“He had an unbelievable year last year, and becoming world No 1. So he’s got a lot going for him,” Els said. “It’s 18 holes, you know? It’s not like I’m the worst match-play player in the world, either. I think I know what I need to do. You’ve got to keep the ball in play. You’ve got to keep it in play on every single hole, because he’s going to be in every hole.”
McIlroy takes on George Coetzee, who is playing for the first time ever in America as a pro. Coetzee got in when Casey’s shoulder injury from snowboarding was not fully healed. Westwood plays Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium. Martin Kaymer, who lost in the championship match to Donald a year ago, is the No 4 seed and opens with Greg Chalmers of Australia.
No one knows how long they will stay. The smart players don’t even bother looking ahead in the bracket to see whom they might face in the next round. Ben Crane opens with Bubba Watson, interesting in that their caddies are sharing a room this week. One of them will be checking out Wednesday afternoon.
“If you get on a roll and you play well, you can run the tables here,” said Steve Stricker, who did just that in 2001 as the No 55 seed.
“I don’t think it really matters where you come from, to tell you the truth,” he said. “They’re all good players. There are 64 good players here, and they deserve to be here. They’ve shown that they’ve played well over the last year to be within that top 64. So you need to play well, just because everybody is good.”