Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 24, 2011

Plenty Of Drama To Open Match Play

The headline from Wednesday’s first day of the Accenture Match Play Championship was the defeat of Tiger Woods by Thomas Bjorn; which just goes to show that while he hasn’t won a golf tournament in 15 months Woods remains the singular focus of most of the media covering professional golf. The reality is that the result of the match between Woods and Bjorn wasn’t all that shocking, and there were other more compelling stories to come out of the tournament’s first round.

Woods is in the midst of completely reworking his swing, and his recent results make it plain that the effort is still very much a work in progress. He opened his season at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, an event that he has won six times; played on a course where he won his most recent major, the 2008 U.S. Open. But for all of his previous success at the San Diego layout, he played the weekend in five over par with rounds of 74 and 75, finishing 15 strokes behind winner Bubba Watson in a tie for 44th place. It was the worst season-opening finish of his professional career.

Two weeks ago he pocketed a reported $3 million appearance fee to play in the Dubai Desert Classic. Like Torrey Pines, the Emirates Golf Club that is home to this European Tour event is a course where Woods has a strong record. He’s won the tournament twice and never finished outside the top five in six previous appearances. But a strong 66 in the second round was sandwiched between two indifferent scores of 71 and 72. Woods then closed the tournament with a 3 over par 75, a round that featured a simple lob wedge from the fairway finding the pond in front of the 18th green, leading to a double bogey.

Woods continues to profess confidence in the progress he is making with new coach Sean Foley, but he clearly is not yet at the top of his game. Bjorn, on the other hand, came to the Dove Mountain course northwest of Tucson in fine form. Three weeks ago in his last outing the 40-year old Dane cruised to a four-stroke victory in the Qatar Masters.

The seedings for the Match Play are based strictly on the Official World Golf Rankings, with the top sixty-four players in the world invited to the tournament. World number three Woods was thus matched against number sixty-two Bjorn. But the rankings are based on performance over a rolling two-year period, and so do not necessarily reflect the current state of any golfer’s game. Already this year Woods, who lost the number one ranking to Lee Westwood late in 2010, has slipped to third, behind German Martin Kaymer. Still many fans used to his long period of dominance continue to believe, week after week, that the current Tour stop will at last be the tournament where the “old” Tiger will magically reappear on the first tee and trample the field. But the reality is that Bjorn’s 19 hole victory was not all that surprising.

What had to raise eyebrows however, was the way that the match unfolded. Woods bogied the opening hole to give the Dane an early advantage. After eight holes Bjorn was two up; but Woods then won three holes in a row to take the lead for the first time in the match. That was the point at which golf fans would understandably expect the dominant player of his time to put his foot on the neck of his opponent. Instead Woods recorded six consecutive pars, while Bjorn made birdies on both the par-5 13th and the par-4 15th to reclaim the lead.

In a do or die situation on the 18th green, Woods rolled in a clutch birdie putt to tie the match and force extra holes and sudden death. Again, the reasonable expectation was that Tiger would ride his final green momentum to a victory. Instead, his tee shot on the first extra hole was his worst swing of the match. The ball was launched far right into the desert scrub. From there it took Woods two more swings just to get the ball back in the fairway. When he missed a long bogey putt a few minutes later, Tiger had not so much been defeated as he had beaten himself.

For all of the media focus on the match between Woods and Bjorn, the result wasn’t even the biggest upset of the day. That honor belonged to 17-year old Matteo Manassero, whose only previous appearance in the U.S. was at last year’s Masters, a tournament that the young Italian qualified for by winning the 2009 British Amateur. Manassero turned pro shortly after winning low amateur honors at Augusta with a tie for 36th place, and won his first professional victory on the European Tour last October. The kid obviously has loads of talent, but he’s the youngest player ever to make it into the Match Play, and he was up against world number seven and PGA Tour stalwart Steve Stricker. The American’s 44th birthday was Wednesday, but it’s unlikely that Stricker felt like celebrating after losing to Manassero 2 & 1. Stricker led early, but the match was all square on the 16th green. That’s where Stricker missed a 7-foot par putt to fall one down. One hole later, he could only stand and watch as Manassero rolled in a 22-foot birdie putt for the win.

Two other first round matches were especially noteworthy. There were a number of upsets and near misses at the top of the four brackets. Of the twelve golfers seeded first, second, or third, four were beaten and three more had to go the full 18 holes or beyond in order to win. But one top seed who would have none of that was Martin Kaymer. The world number two pummeled Korean Seung-Yul Noh 7 & 6. Despite his PGA Championship victory at Whistling Straits last August, Kaymer remains largely unknown to American golf fans; though those who follow the European Tour have come to know him quickly and well. Kaymer won his very first event on that Tour in 2008, and in just over three years already has 9 European Tour wins. His lofty world ranking is further evidence, as if any were needed, of just how truly international a game professional golf has become.

Finally the one man who wasn’t even supposed to be at Dove Mountain made the most of his last-minute invitation. Long-hitting American J.B. Holmes made it into the field as an alternate when Tim Clark withdrew due to injury. The last man in played like he belonged, defeating Camilo Villegas 4 & 2.

For all of the focus on the Woods versus Bjorn match on Wednesday, by Thursday evening Manassero, Kaymer, and Holmes could find solace in the lack of attention paid to them by the fact that they were still part of the story. While Bjorn was dismissed by Geoff Ogilvy in the second round, those three all won their second round match and are part of a field now reduced to sixteen. They and their thirteen compatriots play on tomorrow, in the PGA Tour’s one annual event in which every round has all the pressure of a Sunday final.

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