February 23, 2009

One Match At A Time

Rust isn't all Tiger Woods has to worry about in this week's Match Play Championship. Mark Soltau takes a look at the roadblocks between Tiger and the finals

If Tiger makes it to Friday he could face Rory McIlroy who just picked up his first win at the Dubai Desert Clasic.

If Tiger makes it to Friday he could face Rory McIlroy who just picked up his first win at the Dubai Desert Clasic.

MARANA, Arizona -- If top-seeded Tiger Woods expects to punctuate his PGA Tour comeback by successfully defending his title in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship this week, he'll have to earn the victory. The road to a fourth Match Play crown is lined with quality players, and his first round match-up in the Bobby Jones Bracket with 64th-seeded Brendan Jones is no gimme.

How can that be? For starters, the 33-year-old Woods hasn't competed since his electrifying U.S. Open triumph at Torrey Pines last June. Sure, he has worked hard and his rehabilitation has gone smoothly. But there is bound to be some rust, especially early on, as he gets back into the groove and plays his way into competitive form.

There is also the Aussie factor. Although Woods is 31-6 in this tournament, three of his losses have come against Australians: Peter O'Malley in 2002 and Nick O'Hern in 2005 and 2007.

"You have to be on your game right away," Woods said Tuesday. "It's not like you can build into it. You can go out there and shoot 4,- 5-, 6-,7-under par and still go home, so you have to make sure that you bring intensity and bring your game from the very first hole. Because if I don't, then I'll be going home."

Although Woods has competed only once in the last 10 months, he's still an overwhelming favorite to dispose of the 33-year-old Jones, who was a first-round loser to Adam Scott last year in his only previous appearance. Assuming Woods prevails, he will face the winner of the Tim Clark-Retief Goosen match on Thursday.

Looking ahead to Friday, Woods could face youngster Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, fresh off a win in Dubai; or Mike Weir or Hunter Mahan. Beyond that, lurking for Saturday's quarterfinals are Geoff Ogilvy, Trevor Immleman, Camilo Villegas, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Rory Sabbatini.

The winner of the Jones Bracket will meet the winner of the Ben Hogan Bracket in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon. Big names in that flight include Vijay Singh, Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson, Lee Westwood and Stewart Cink. Last year, Woods downed Cink 8 and 7 in the finals.

Having excelled in match play, winning three U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur championships, Woods knows better than to look ahead.

"That's the fickleness of match play," he said. "You have to play well. Sometimes you can play poorly. I remember one of the guys at La Costa one year shot 79 and won his match. But the reverse can happen, as well. The only thing you can control is what you do on the golf course yourself."