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No such thing as upsets at Match Play

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“We wanted Jordan in slot No. 8, 9, 10, somewhere in there. They [Spieth and Day] played the last two days, so not a head-to-head personal battle, but they have played a lot of that golf during the season. So I don't know if it was a make-or-break for the Presidents Cup if they played or didn't play.” -- Haas on why he didn't put Spieth against Day in the Sunday singles  - 

MARANA, Ariz. – It’s not so much a lie as it is a misconception.

Like many things in golf, certain concepts in sports just don’t translate to the fairways. As upset Wednesday swallowed one higher-seeded player after another, your scribe was cornered by the unmistakable feeling that there are no real upsets at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

On paper, world No. 67 Kiradech Aphibarnrat – the last man into the Match Play field – is no match for No. 2 Henrik Stenson, the week’s highest-ranked player. But the Swede found himself down early in his match and needed a pair of late birdies to advance to Round 2.

All told, nine lower-seeded players won on Day 1 at Done Mountain ... eh, Dove Mountain – which was not even close to the record number of Round 1 upsets (18) established in 1999 – but no one stormed the court after the match to cut down the flag.

This may not match the official company line, but the difference between the top and bottom of this week’s field is measured in inches.

In short, there are no real upsets at the Match Play.

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“I don’t think anyone was giving me much of a chance,” said Graeme McDowell, who survived a 19-hole shootout with Gary Woodland. “On a course he can decimate with his length, yeah, I consider it an upset.”

Point taken, but in McDowell’s case it was more of a moral victory over Woodland than a bona fide upset.

On a day filled with all manner of emotional peaks and valleys no one covered the psychological spectrum better than McDowell, who readily admitted that his relationship with the Match Play has been more hate than love in recent years.

McDowell set out against the slugger Woodland on Day 1 at Dove Mountain and found himself in familiar territory, playing catchup off the tee and on the scoreboard.

The Ulsterman lost the first three holes and was 4 down through seven. By the time he arrived at the 16th tee he was 3 down with three to play.

“He hit 6-iron all over the flag on 16 and the (courtesy cars) were circling,” McDowell said. “I could see (manager Colin Morrissey) on the phone. I thought, right, hopefully he’s got me a flight booked.”

Woodland’s approach flew long, however, and he made bogey. G-Mac birdied No. 17, was conceded a birdie at the last and converted from 6 feet at the first extra frame to win in 19 holes.

“I thought it was over. You’re 3 down against a guy like that,” McDowell said.

McDowell’s was every bit the compelling comeback, but considering his resume –he did win Europe’s World Match Play last year – and the fact he was the higher-seeded player in his match it’s difficult to label his victory an upset. Or any of the Day 1 games at pro golf’s version of March madness.

Peter Hanson may have surprised Dustin Johnson, the fifth-highest-ranked player in the field, with his 4-and-3 whipping, but when you consider the Swede’s record at this event (he advanced to the quarterfinals in 2012 and has lost in Round 1 just once in his last three starts) he may have busted some brackets but not the status quo.

Even Rickie Fowler’s 2-and-1 victory over Mr. Match Play, Ian Poulter, qualifies as a surprise, but an upset?

Still, it’s not as though Fowler – who was the 14th-seeded player in the Ben Hogan bracket while Poulter was the third-seeded player – didn’t savor the chance to take down the Ryder Cup giant-killer from England.

“It’s nice to get a victory against anyone, but Poulter is one of the most well-known match-play players in the game,” Fowler smiled.

Richard Sterne (a 16th-seeded player) over Zach Johnson (a No. 1 seed), Matteo Manassero (14th seed) over Luke Donald (fifth seed), Harris English (ninth seed) over Lee Westwood (eighth seed), George Coetzee (14th seed) over Steve Stricker (third seed), Jonas Blixt (11th seed) over Keegan Bradley (sixth seed) may all be upsets according to the Official World Golf Ranking, but on this the math misses the mark.

Although Zach Johnson’s loss was the day’s biggest paper upset, he has not advanced past the second round at the Match Play since 2006, when the event was played at the more user-friendly Gallery course next door; and before this week Stricker hadn’t hit off real grass since mid-December.

Much like the term “playoff” doesn’t fit neatly into the Tour’s season-long points race, the concept of an upset just doesn’t dovetail with the capricious ways of match play, which has a tendency of steamrolling preconceived notions as well as the world’s best players.

“Thirty-two guys arrived here this week as one of the top players in the world and leave today feeling like a 10 handicap,” said Denis Pugh, the swing coach for Francesco Molinari, who lost on Day 1.

Given the depth of professional golf, however, none of them left Dove Mountain feeling as if they’d been upset.