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The Big Easy Breezes into California

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CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Fresh off a holiday in Hawaii, Ernie Els arrived at La Costa Resort over the weekend and played 18 holes. He didn't show up again until an hour of sunlight was left on the eve of the Match Play Championship.
 
Els practiced in the chipping area, then mosied over to the ninth green to hit a few putts, gliding with a posture that lends to his mystique as the Big Easy.
 
Right now, everything seems to be just that ' easy.
 
He was the No. 2 seed when the Accenture Match Play Championship got under way Wednesday, although no one has won more lately, not even Tiger Woods.
 
Els has won four of his first five tournaments worldwide, six of eight dating to October and 11 times over the last 14 months.
 
No sooner had a group of reporters surrounded him late Tuesday afternoon that a question arose about playing in the same tournament as Woods for the first time since the Tour Championship four months ago.
 
There was a time when Els would have rolled his eyes, or even bristled, at constant questions and comparisons to Woods. This time, he took it in stride, almost as though he was expecting the question.
 
``It doesn't make any difference this week,'' Els said, alluding to the unpredictable nature of 18-hole matches. ``It would be great if I can make the finals. That would be fun for the fans. But the probability of that happening is not very good.''
 
Woods couldn't agree more.
 
He usually tees it up on the first day of a tournament with the intention of winning. Expectations are a little different this week.
 
``You just try to advance,'' Woods said Tuesday. ``Whether you shoot 10 over or 10 under, whatever it takes to advance, that's the name of the game.''
 
It might as well be a lottery.
 
Consider the seeds of the last four winners: 24, 19, 55, 62.
 
Some players have shot 5 under par and lost. Others have shot 5 over par and won.
 
``There's definitely luck involved,'' Woods said. ``I've had my share of good fortune.''
 
He also has experienced some misery, and Woods isn't alone.
 
Twice in the four years of this World Golf Championship event, none of the top 10 seeds even made it to the weekend. Woods has reached the finals only once, in 2000, and he was smoked by Darren Clarke.
 
It all begins to unfold Wednesday at soggy La Costa Resort.
 
Overnight rain dumped 1 1/2 inches on the golf course, and more showers created small lakes all over La Costa.
 
Senior rules official Mike Shea said he anticipated the course draining in time for the first match Wednesday morning, although the fairways are too wet to mow and officials are leaning toward allowing players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.
 
Changes to La Costa could eliminate some of the surprising results. The course is about 240 yards longer ' the 17th alone has been expanded by 85 yards and now measures 483 ' and the rough is thick, like a U.S. Open.
 
That figures to favor the big hitters, and par might be enough to win several holes.
 
Not that it matters.
 
Match play is all about having a lower score than the opponent, then moving on to the next day and hoping for the best.
 
Woods became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round when he was beaten last year by Australian Peter O'Malley.
 
Els' luck hasn't been much better. He has never made it beyond the second round in his three trips to La Costa.
 
``I want to play as good as I can and hopefully get through tomorrow, then hopefully get through the next day,'' Els said. ``I'm going to play as well as I can, and if I get beat, then so what? Sometimes, there's nothing you can do.''
 
Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, seeds mean nothing.
 
Woods plays Carl Pettersson, the 64th seed, who got into the $6 million tournament only when Vijay Singh withdrew with a rib injury. Pettersson was the first-round leader at the British Open, and he was runner-up to Woods at Torrey Pines two weeks ago.
 
Els plays Phil Tataurangi of New Zealand. Phil Mickelson (No. 3) plays Robert Karlsson of Sweden. Fourth-seeded Retief Goosen plays Jay Haas, 49, who qualified for his first WGC event. Haas hasn't been in match play since the '95 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill.
 
``I don't know what to expect,'' he said. ``I just know that I'm going to have to play my tail off to beat anybody.''
 
The other trick is figuring out who they are.
 
For the first time, there are more international players (35) than Americans (29). A dozen players are making their debut in the Match Play Championship.
 
All have a chance to win the $1,050,000 first prize, but half will be knocked out after playing only 18 holes or fewer.
 
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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