MARANA, Ariz. – It’s a love-hate deal, like first dates or your team landing the first pick in next year’s draft. If things were going that well you wouldn’t be in either situation, but all things considered life could be worse.
That Tiger Woods is in this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship field is “glass half full” territory. Fourteen weeks ago Woods had slipped to 58th in the world golf ranking and was on the precipice of not qualifying for the first time in a World Golf Championship event.
Since then he’s posted three top-5 global finishes and climbed to 20th, safely inside the top 64 and suddenly exposed to the nuanced indifference of match play.
It’s a relationship that stretches back more than a decade and has been equal parts productive and painful for Woods. In 11 Match Play starts Woods has three victories, two one-and-done Wednesdays – including last year’s Round 1 loss to Thomas Bjorn (19 holes) – and everything in between.
But if Woods is haunted by the capriciousness of match play he didn’t sound scorned on Tuesday.
“It brings us back to how I think all of us grew up playing,” Woods said. “It’s not often you get a guy head-to-head in the same group, sometimes it’s in different groups, two groups ahead or you’re a group behind. Here it’s eyeball-to-eyeball . . . one-on-one.”
If Woods sounds partial to the mano-a-mano nature of match play he’s come by it honestly.
A few years ago your correspondent asked him what he considered his greatest accomplishment in golf. The answer, surprisingly to some, was his three U.S. Junior titles.
The window to win three Juniors, which is particularly confining given the age requirements, and the oddity of the match play format were the reasons why he held the under-aged trifecta in such high regard.
Similarly, his three Accenture keepsakes hold a special place in his trophy case, somewhere just below those 14 major championships but ahead of, say, the 2006 Buick Open.
The dichotomy of the accomplishment is what gives it its significance. This week’s champion will have beaten just six players . . . six. That’s more collateral damage than your average Saturday morning members game, yet he will do so via a format that is every bit as challenging as a 144-man field.
“In theory I (can shoot) 65 and you’re going home, that’s just the way it is,” Woods said. “You have to go low. But there are some matches, I remember (Colin Montgomerie) and (Ian Poulter) at La Costa, the winner shot 79. You don’t know who you’re going to get or how they’re playing.”
In this respect, the season’s first WGC may be an even tougher climb following a slight format change last year. Prior to 2011 the Match Play’s championship frame was a scheduled 36-hole bout, but officials switched to 18 holes last year.
For Woods, 36-hole finals have been the tonic to mitigate match play’s unpredictability. The more holes you play, the theory goes, the better chance talent, and not the rub of the green, will prevail.
“It’s a sprint,” Woods said of 18-hole matches. “Generally, if you get down early you rarely come back. It’s hard to make up ground when you’re only playing 18 holes. Thirty-six holes you can make a comeback.”
It’s a theory that at least partially explains Woods’ 3-1 record in 36-hole finals. The only time he’s failed to win a 36-hole WGC finale was in 2000 to Darren Clarke.
So on top of a new swing and uncooperative putter Woods no longer has the perceived advantage that came with a 36-hole final, to say nothing of an increasingly deep talent pool that has made a No. 1 seed little more than a ceremonial position in recent years.
“It doesn’t really matter if you’re a (No.) 16 or 5 (seed),” said Woods, a fifth-seed this week who will face Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano on Wednesday. “Any guy can win any match. The world ranking is done over a two-year revolving period. Here, it’s not just one day, but one round.”
The best Wednesday in golf will beget the shortest work week for half the field at Dove Mountain, a stark and satisfying reality.
“Anybody can beat anybody at this level,” Woods reasoned. “That’s what makes it so interesting for us as players.”
That’s what makes the Match Play the Tour’s ultimate love-hate stop.