Match Play is a Funny Game

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Shim Bennioff had me dead to rights. Four-up with four to play in the 1976 Berkleigh Country Club championship. First round. I was a two handicap with a pretty swing and teenage potential. And I was puking all over myself. Shim was a soft 11 who wore orthopedic medical shoes. Finally, he woke up. Did the stretch run in double bogey, bogey, triple, double. I made a five footer for bogey to send it to extries, and won on the 19th hole.
 
Match Play's a funny game. Unless you have to play it. My advice, based on so many grueling matches against the likes of Shim Bennioff, Hank Penso, Buddy Weiner and Sam Blinderman, is to lower your expectations. And it applies to The Accenture World Match Play this year, particularly for fans.
 
This is the fourth year for the event and we're still growing into it. Remember 1999? We salivated over the prospect of a Woods-Duval final. Instead we got Maggert-Magee. I asked the sharp-tongued Magee if he was at all put off by the widespread disappointment that Tiger and David had failed to make the title match, and with a slight grin he snapped, 'I don't give a f--- about Tiger and David. They didn't bring their 'A' games and we did. That's the beauty of match play.'
 
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And the prospect of another journeyman final tells you all you need to know as to why networks won't approve of more than one match play event per year. On the other hand, golf fans tend to like match play because it's what they usually play at the club level. Plus, it is a bit tiresome living in a world governed by ratings points and the presence of Tiger.
 
Certainly, if they could guarantee Woods against Els this year, they'd sell out the Rose Bowl in a heartbeat. This is what the public wants. But recent history tells us that it likely won't happen. In addition to Magee against Maggert, we've seen Darren Clarke handle Tiger, Steve Stricker defeat Pierre Fulke in the forgettable affair in Australia when 39 of the top 64 decided to pass on a New Year's day trip down under, and then last year's Sacramento tango with Kevin Sutherland beating Scott McCarron. The highest winning seed has been No. 19 Darren Clarke. Sutherland was 62nd.
 
Fifty-four of 128 matches over four years have been won by lower seeds. That's 42 percent. Peter O'Malley became the only 64 to dump a top seed when he dispatched Tiger last year. Twice a 63's beaten a No. 2. Nick O'Hern toppled Hal Sutton in Australia, and last year John Cook knocked off Phil Mickelson.
 
It's simple. In stroke play, if Tiger struggles through 14 holes at say, even or one over par, he's still very much in the picture, right? You'd never write him off. In match play, he's in deep trouble. Great players are just more vulnerable in a short sprint than they are in a long marathon. Conservatively, the over/under on the number of times this week we'll hear the phrase, 'anything can happen,' is at 79.
 
By the way, for what it's worth, the final eight players last year were all 35 or older. Maybe the young guys just don't have the patience for five days of the golf equivalent of a root canal. In any event, the players actually come here pretty laid back because they know it's a roll of the dice. If you get some luck, a hot putter and a good draw, you can cash out with a million. If not, you get some time off before the tour moves to Florida.
 
Anyway, people keep asking me who I like this week. I tell them it's impossible to predict. So let me leave it at this: go get 'em Shim!
 
Random Thoughts:
 
Justin Leonard against Jose Maria Olazabal is not only a rematch of their infamous Ryder Cup match, but also a reprisal of their first round tussle here a year ago. Olazabal prevailed one up.
 
Rich Beem squares off against Steve Lowery. After Lowery nearly gave Beemer a coronary at The International last year, Beemer was probably hoping he'd seen the last of him.
 
Is it possible that David Duval's now ranked 28th in the world?
 
Ernie would seem to have a tougher road to the finals than Tiger. His side of the bracket includes Davis Love, Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, David Toms, Thomas Bjorn, Len Mattiace, Jim Furyk, Robert Allenby, dangerous Peter Lonard, young flamethrowers Paul Casey and Trevor Immelman. Tiger's road may bring K.J Choi, Chris DiMarco, Retief Goosen, Nick Price, Shigeki, Charles Howell III and Justin Rose.
 
I felt for ABC play-by-play man Mike Tiricho, having to tell viewers to switch to ESPN late in their telecast. That's a tough message to get across in the middle of a gripping playoff between two young stars at a fabled venue to an audience that's invested several hours with you. ABC did, of course, have pressing business because who wants to miss the beginning of 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.' How about, 'I'm A Golf Fan, Give Me a #%@& Break!'
 
The education of Charles Howell III continues. That was a big spot at Riviera-a playoff, a four footer, downhill, when you've struggled all day and with Curtis Strange saying this has been your Achilles Heel. So now Charles will have to live with these questions about his putting for a little longer, and yes, if he's one down to Tiger and needs to make a shorty people might have reservations. But if he's as great as many believe, then he'll overcome this.
 
Nick Price, by the way, might make the greatest golf commentator ever. He's outspoken and classy at the same time. He truly understands the game. The manner in which he explained his thoughts on playing partner Howell on Sunday was exquisite.
 
Jos Vanstiphout, Ernie Els' mind guru, says his guy can play this well all the time. Tiger's certainly imbued other players with the idea that maybe you can shed those limits that people tend to put on things. You can make every cut. You can be great consistently and competitive always. Age does not matter. Skin color does not matter. Barriers, that's all they are. The mission is to exist without barriers. If Jos is right about Ernie, well then we're in for some year.
 
Full Coverage of the WGC - Accenture Match Play