Doesn't get much better than match play

JON McCARTHY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:40 PM ET

TORONTO - Iron your golf pants and throw on a collared shirt ... it’s time for Starch Madness.

Yes, that was lame but gimme a break, not much rhymes with March.

More importantly, outside of the majors and the Ryder Cup the opening day of the WGC Accenture Match Play is the best day of the year to be a golf fan.

Thirty-two matches featuring 62 of the top 64 players in the world going head-to-head.

Every week on Tour, when golfers are asked about the pressure of being paired with Player X, Y or Z, we hear the same answers:

“I just concentrate on my game and let the rest take care of itself.”

Or

“I’m playing the golf course not my opponent.”

Or

“I am a golf robot from the planet Par and I have no emotion chip.”

Not this week.

Match Play is a different animal. Some players will rise to the moment and others will be crushed by it.

Let the head games begin.

The players are broken up into four brackets — Bobby Jones, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead — and seeded from one to 16.

The four top seeds are Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer.

Storylines are coming out of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Arizona fast and furious.

CASTANO OR COSTANZA?

Our first gem comes from the Snead bracket where Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (12th seed) has drawn Tiger Woods (5th seed).

Fernandez-Castano seems to subscribe to the Stephen Ames philosophy that poking a Tiger is a good idea.

Rewind to 2006.

Ames was the final player in the field and drew the tournament’s top-seed Woods. Before the match, Ames was asked what his chances of winning were and he responded: “Anything can happen. Especially where he’s hitting the ball.”

Woods went out and won the first nine holes — seven of them with birdies — en route to a 9 & 8 victory (nine holes up with eight holes remaining), the most lopsided victory in the tournament’s history.

After the match Tiger was asked if he had heard Ames’ remarks.

“Yes,” Tiger said.

Asked what his response was, Tiger simply said: “Nine and eight.”

Fast forward to this week.

Fernandez-Castano probably has had more microphones in front of him over the past couple days than he has had over his entire career — a career that includes five European Tour wins.

Even though he heaped plenty of praise on the former World No. 1, those aren’t the moments that stand out.

When asked about his chance versus Woods, Fernandez-Castano had this to say:

“I don’t think he’s at his best, so it’s a good opportunity ... I think he’s beatable. Of course, I need to play good.”

It didn’t end there. When asked about Tiger’s future, the World No. 48 added this:

“What I’m sure about is he’s not going to be as dominant as what he used to be. I think there are a lot of young guys, like Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler, guys that have beaten him. They know the feeling of beating Tiger.”

How will Tiger respond?

Odds are it will be a story Fernando-Castano and Ames can share over a beer one day.

TOP SPOT UP FOR GRABS

Donald’s perch atop the world rankings could end this week with a win by either McIlroy or Westwood.

With the strength of the field at the WGC Match Play, there are a tonne of ranking points available. Last year, Donald took home 76 points for his convincing match play win.

Assuming this year’s point breakdown is similar, a victory by McIlroy or Westwood could vault either of them to top spot.

If McIlroy wins Donald will need to advance to the third round to keep the top spot. If Westwood wins Donald needs to make it to the quarterfinals to hold him off.

SIR WALTER

Naming the match play brackets after Jones, Hogan, Snead and Player is a great touch. The fact that the winner receives the Walter Hagen Trophy is perfect. There has never been a better match-player than Hagen. From 1916-1957 the PGA Championship was a match-play tournament and Hagen won it five times, including four consecutive from ’24-’27.

During that amazing run Hagen won 22 consecutive matches and terrorized the psyche of opponents along the way.

Hagen would pull out a long iron in the fairway while waiting to hit, egging-on his opponent to do the same. After his opponent came up short with his approach, Hagen would switch to the wood he intended to hit all along and drop it on the green.

It gets better.

A great short game player, Hagen would intentionally miss the green causing his opponent to subconsciously relax, all the while knowing he could get up-and-down with ease.

It got to the point where, as Herbert Warren Wind points out in his seminal book The Story of American Golf, “His reputation as a match player reached such proportions that each error he made was interpreted as a deliberate move.”

There has never been a greater showman in golf and with this year’s event being held at the Ritz-Carlton, Sir Walter would have fit right in.


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