Mapping out Tiger's path to Match Play final

Updated: February 22, 2009

Coming off an utterly lackluster beginning to his season, Phil Mickelson carded a blistering opening-round 8-under 63 at Riviera on Thursday ... only to become a mere bullet point just a few hours later when Tiger Woods announced his intention to make his long-awaited return from injury at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

While the timing led some conspiracy theorists to the conclusion that Woods picked this moment to upstage his foe, such a notion couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, it was simply a coincidence tinged with irony; nothing Tiger ever does is contingent upon what Phil is doing -- and vice versa.

We can, however, consider it a microcosm of Lefty's career. A Hall of Fame talent, he has been constantly compared with and overshadowed by Woods. And so maybe it's only fitting that as Mickelson parlayed that hot start into his 35th career PGA Tour victory, the news still took a backseat to Tiger's return.

Can't say I've gone in a different direction here, either. In a week in which a teen sensation won a Euro Tour event and a valued title sponsor saw its fateful demise, the Weekly 18 will get to Phil's L.A. story, but only after breaking down Tiger's road to another title in Tucson.

1
Tiger's Match Play route

As soon as Tiger Woods' announcement was made official, the Golf Channel began airing promos that ran approximately every 3.4 minutes, in which Samuel L. Jackson reprised his "Pulp Fiction" role of Jules Winnfield, making one noticeable change to the following Biblical passage:

Tiger Woods

Stan Badz/Getty Images

In 2008, Tiger Woods traveled a complicated route to victory at the Match Play. This week, Woods will have to beat some tough competition if he wants to repeat as champion.

"The path of the righteous man is beset by the inequities of the lesser man. Blessed is he who shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness. And he will strike down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to defeat him. And you will know that man's name is ... Eldrick Tiger Woods!"

Let's examine those who will attempt to defeat the defending champ this week in Tucson:

First round: Brendan Jones
Just as Superman can't overcome kryptonite, Tiger is averse to ... vegemite. It's been Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy vey for Woods over the years. The No. 1 seed in each of his previous nine appearances at this event, his only first-round loss came in 2002 at the hands of Peter O'Malley. In 2005, he suffered his second-earliest exit, falling to a putting wizard from Oz, Nick O'Hern, who beat him again two years later for good measure.

Well, guess where Jones hails from. That's right. Yet another Aussie, the soon-to-be-34-year-old is underappreciated and largely unknown here in the U.S. -- and for good reason, I suppose. After flaming out in his sole PGA Tour season of 2005 when he finished 144th on the money list, he retreated to the Japan Tour, where last year he could have earned the nickname Mr. Close Call. Jones had five results of fourth or better in 2008, but never earned the hardware.

Comparatively, Jones makes O'Malley look like, well, Tiger Woods. Calling this a potential upset is akin to pointing out that John Daly doesn't mind the occasional buffalo wing.

Woods' return has been hailed as the most anticipated in golf history; I'd argue it places second to Ben Hogan's 1950 comeback after a near-fatal car accident. And if Jones defeats the top seed, some will contend that it's the greatest upset in match play history; again, I'll stick with Hogan, who lost in a U.S. Open playoff to club pro Jack Fleck in 1955. Still, Tiger isn't coming back only to fly home again on Wednesday evening. If he loses, it's a big, big deal.

Live Blog: Match Play Edition

Tiger Woods Can't be near a television during Tiger's comeback round Wednesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship? No problem. Tune in for Jason Sobel's live blog for the duration of Woods' return to the PGA Tour. Blog
• WGC Match Play bracket

Second round: Tim Clark or Retief Goosen
Whoa. If this were the NCAA hoops tournament, Dick Vitale would be screaming into the camera about how the committee stacked this region. These are a couple of PTPers, baby! Clark is a bulldog who has a penchant for churning out pars, while Goosen is only a few years removed from being a top seed in this event.

The smart money says Woods will find himself up against Goosen, who seems like he has a new lease on life since turning 40 on Feb. 3 and owns a 12-9 record in this event versus Clark's 1-5 mark.

Neither will be an easy out, nor will he be intimidated by the opponent or the spotlight. In fact, if you were seeking to choose a pair of players whose pulses wouldn't quicken in such a match, Goosen and Clark would be right at the top of your list.

Third round: Rory McIlroy, Mike Weir, Hunter Mahan or Louis Oosthuizen
Mahan and Oosthuizen are very good 20-something players, but McIlroy and Weir would provide more of a marquee matchup.

Dubbed the "Boy Wonder" overseas, the kid from Holywood, Northern Ireland, is thought to be among the next generation of eventual rivals to King Tiger's throne. It wouldn't be the first time he followed Woods at something; McIlroy's victory at the Dubai Desert Classic three weeks ago came on the heels of Woods' win there a year ago. Competing in his first U.S. event as a professional, the long-hitting teen may be asked to face Woods head-to-head much sooner than he had expected.

A date with Weir would portend a rematch of the most electric singles match of the 2007 Presidents Cup, when the home crowd favorite knocked off his American counterpart north of the border. He would likely feed off the confidence from that match, though expect the little lefty to give up some 50 yards off the tee in most situations.

Quarterfinals: Possibilities include Geoff Ogilvy, Camilo Villegas and Rory Sabbatini
The only player not named Eldrick to reach the Match Play finals more than once in the past four years is Ogilvy; the 2006 champ now owns an 11-2 overall record. It's not surprising, either. An all-or-nothing type of player, he can make birdies in bunches while the big numbers don't hurt as much in this format.

Take that last sentence and double it for Villegas. One of the PGA Tour's more athletic players, this potential match could have the scouts racing to Tucson straight from the NFL combine. Camilo can hang with Tiger off the tee and his putting is much improved. With two wins late last year in Woods' absence, he'd love to prove his worth now that he's back.

But really, folks: The one match everyone wants to see -- for the same reason we enjoy demolition derbies and out-of-tune "American Idol" auditions -- is that of Woods against longtime antagonist Sabbatini. The precocious South African via Texas once called Tiger "more beatable than ever" -- and that was just after losing to him. He followed by contending, "I want Tiger. Everyone wants Tiger. I want him to pick it up and we'll be up there late on Sunday."

And then there was the curious case of the 2007 Target World Challenge, hosted by Woods, when Rory withdrew from the tournament down 28 strokes after three rounds to the eventual champ, while still cashing a last-place check of $170,000.

Based on Sabo's play at Riviera -- he was in serious contention until a late double-bogey on Sunday -- we could finally witness this matchup on Saturday morning. Will Tiger be motivated? I'll answer that with two words: Stephen Ames. Woods beat him, 9 and 8, four years ago -- and Ames' comments about his opponent weren't nearly as inflammatory as those of Sabbatini.

Semifinals: Possibilities include Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els
Let's face it: Ever since this tournament was first introduced 10 years ago, there's one match that's been more appealing than any other ... and it still hasn't taken place.

A Woods-Mickelson showdown on Saturday afternoon would certainly please those with television broadcasting rights, while the rest of us wouldn't be complaining, either. Of course, let's not count those chickens just yet; Mickelson owns a 13-9 career record in this event, but he's never reached the semifinal round. After a week in which he was alternately brilliant and luckless, there's no telling what Phil will do next.

In the event that Woods advances this far but Mickelson doesn't, either Singh or Els would be a suitable replacement.

Finals: Possibilities include Sergio Garcia, Kenny Perry, Padraig Harrington, Anthony Kim
While I'll admit it seems a little ridiculous to extrapolate this far down the line -- after all, these are just four of 32 players who could potentially reach the final match from the other side of the bracket -- this seems like a good place to mention that Woods isn't necessarily unbeatable in a 36-hole format.

Nine years ago, he lost to buddy Darren Clarke 4 and 3, and back in 2006, he lost by the same score to Shaun Micheel in the opening round of the HSBC World Match Play Championship.

That should give hope to any potential opponent who has just endured five rounds' worth of roars from the frenzied Woods gallery. After five straight wins, it would be implausible for Tiger to lose in the final, but certainly not impossible.

Three up

2 Phil Mickelson.
If you've come here seeking an explanation for how Mickelson so drastically turned around his game to win the Northern Trust Open on Sunday, I'm sorry to disappoint you.

Phil Mickelson

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

After the day he had Sunday -- which included five bogeys, two birdies and an eagle -- Phil Mickelson kept it together enough to earn career win No. 35.

I have officially run out of theories, hypotheses, philosophies, conjectures, postulations, ruminations, explanations, speculations, suppositions and assumptions when trying to analyze the roller-coaster ride known as Lefty.

Let's review: At the FBR Open, where Mickelson won four years ago and lost in a playoff last season, he shot 76-73 to miss the cut. At the Buick Invitational, where he has won twice, he finished T-42 while looking lost on the greens; he missed eight putts inside of 6 feet on the North Course in the second round and 4-putted one green on Sunday. And at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, it was more of the same, as he finished T-55.

These would be disappointing results for any world-class player, but even more so for Phil. Of his 34 previous PGA Tour victories, 25 came in the unofficial first half of the golf season (including events through the U.S. Open) and only nine took place in the latter half of the year.

Perhaps the alarm had been sounded. Perhaps the criticism was valid. Mickelson wasn't just being knocked for his relatively poor play; it seemed he was leaving himself open to examination on everything from changing out clubs in the middle of tournaments to relying on the two-headed instruction monster of Butch Harmon and Dave Pelz.

Whatever the case, it seemed like he had things figured out with that opening-round 63 at the Riv, but this roller-coaster ride didn't simply end on a high note. That would be too easy, and as we've always seen, Mickelson doesn't do easy. Instead, the ups and downs only intensified, as the defending champion followed with a 1-over 72 and countered with a 62 in the third round, taking a 4-stroke lead into the final 18 holes.

"I always feel pressure going into the final round, no matter if I'm trailing, have a small lead or a big lead," he said at the time. "But I need to feel that pressure right now. I need to get back into the mix and I need to get back into contention and in the final group on Sunday. So I welcome that challenge. I mean, I love that challenge."

Well, Sunday's final round was a challenge, to put it mildly. After opening with an eagle -- his third in three days on the first hole -- Phil played the next 14 holes in 5-over, losing the lead to Steve Stricker. No worries. He hit a dart on No. 16 for birdie, was one of only three players to reach the par-5 17th in 2, then 2-putted for another birdie and capped a par with a 5-foot slider on the final hole to win by 1.

"To fight through a round where I didn't have my best stuff and to make some key putts coming down the stretch and key shots, it feels terrific to pull out the victory," Mickelson said. "It means a lot to me to get my game back in shape and continue in the direction I'm trying to go. I'll get some more practice in with Butch next week and hopefully build on this."

Despite earning the hardware and oversized check, he could still use a little work. Despite a solid ninth-place finish in greens in regulation this past week, Mickelson was a pedestrian 25th in putts per round and 15th in total birdies.

What will Phil do next? I'm out of theories, hypotheses, philosophies ... well, you get the picture. Maybe the only thing we can bank on is that the roller-coaster ride will continue and it will always be worth watching.

3 Danny Lee
Three weeks after 19-year-old Rory McIlroy clung to victory in Dubai, Lee, 18, matched his achievement, winning the Johnnie Walker Classic on Sunday.

Is this the European Tour or a Jonas Brothers concert?

Youth may be wasted on the young, but the young have been wasting their opponents around the globe. On Sunday, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion shot 67 to become the youngest Euro Tour winner in history and just the second amateur (joining Pablo Martin) to earn a victory.

"It still feels like I'm in dreamland. Hopefully no one wakes me up," Lee said after besting Felipe Aguilar, Hiroyuki Fujita and Ross McGowan by a single stroke. "I was dreaming about winning but my goal was to make the cut after two rounds and to try to get into the top 20 or top 10. I played extremely well the last few days and yeah, here I am. You know, winning a European Tour event, it's pretty amazing what I've done."

So amazing that in any other week -- when a guy named Tiger wasn't returning and another named Phil wasn't winning in the U.S. -- Lee would have been the no-doubt-about-it, slam-dunk option to lead this column.

This kid, who also finished T-20 at last year's Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour, isn't just young, though; he's also a little na´ve. Or maybe it's just confidence.

After winning the U.S. Amateur last August, Lee laughed when discussing a potential pairing with Woods in the U.S. Open, but still boasted, "I'm going to beat him." When asked about him after Sunday's win, Lee wasn't exactly more humble.

"I can't compare to Tiger Woods because he's one of the greatest players in the world and he's the No. 1-ranked player in the world," Lee said. "All I want to do is just break what he's done. Obviously, I can't win three U.S. Amateurs in a row but I'll try to break his records on the PGA Tour."

Oh, that's all? Hey, it's good to have dreams. Besides, he's already one up on Tiger, who didn't earn his first win in a professional event until he turned pro.

4 Andre Stolz. When discussing recent one-hit wonders on the PGA Tour, the likes of Chris Couch, Brian Bateman and even Wes Short Jr. can't compete with Stolz, who won the then-Michelin Championship at Las Vegas back in 2004.

Despite earning just $83,373 in his first 19 starts after graduating from the Nationwide Tour, Stolz defeated the trio of Harrison Frazar, Tom Lehman and Tag Ridings by a single stroke in Sin City to take home a $720,000 paycheck and a two-year exemption in the big leagues.

He hardly took advantage, though. Due to a lingering wrist injury, the Aussie made just a dozen starts the next season, finishing in the money on three occasions, and failed to see any action in 2006. One year later, his exemption had dried up and Stolz was nowhere to be found.

Literally.

True story: Two years ago, in advance of the Vegas tournament, I toyed with the idea of writing a "Where Are They Now?" column on Stolz, but couldn't find the guy. The PGA Tour had lost track of his whereabouts; the phone number for his agent was no longer in working order.

Turns out, the injury had forced an early retirement from the world of professional golf -- whether anyone knew it or not -- as he opened a practice range in New South Wales.

Recently, though, Stolz began entertaining notions of a comeback. Last year, he made one appearance on the Nationwide circuit, shooting 70-71 to miss the cut at the Utah Championship. And in December, he finished what must have been an incredibly encouraging T-17 and T-6 at the Australian Masters and Australian Open, respectively.

That was only a precursor of bigger things to come. Two weeks ago, Stolz triumphed at the Australasian Tour's 2009 Victorian PGA Championship, winning by 2 strokes for his first victory anywhere since that week in Vegas.

The invisible man had reappeared.

"I feel like since I started back playing again with my new swing that I don't hit it very far anymore, but it goes a lot straighter," Stolz, 38, said after the win. "I feel like I've played really good since I came back, but it's been really frustrating because I feel like I walk off the course shooting more than I should have."

This week he took part in the Johnnie Walker Classic, where he was runner-up six years ago. Opening rounds of 69-67 vaulted him to within 2 strokes of the lead entering the weekend, but a relatively poor final 36 holes left him in a share of 58th place when it was all said and done.

Even so, less than two full months into the season, Stolz has my early vote for worldwide Comeback Player of the Year.

Three down

5 Steve Stricker.
We've all heard of the "best player to have never won a major" label and discussions often abound as to the "best player without a PGA Tour victory," but allow me to address one category that doesn't get much recognition, for obvious reasons: "Best player to have won only one PGA Tour event since 2002."

It's difficult to knock Stricker after a week in which he shot 68-66-69-67 to finish solo second in L.A., 1 stroke behind Mickelson. But it seems like something always gets in the way of his march toward victory; in this case, it was a final-hole bogey once he finally took sole possession of the lead late in the afternoon.

Earlier this season, the Wisconsin native was on track to win the Bob Hope Classic, but was derailed by a final-round 77 that left him in a share of third place. He now owns eight top-three results in the past four years against only one victory: the 2007 Barclays.

It makes me wonder: Either he doesn't want it enough or he wants it too much.

I tend to think the latter is true, though listen to what he had to say after Sunday's round and it seems like he's a guy resigned to a life of strong finishes without many wins:

"It was exciting to get into the thick of things and to feel the heat of the battle. ... It's just a little disappointing when you don't finish it off or have the opportunity to finish it off and I didn't do it. ... I'm happy that I'm putting myself in those positions to try to win golf tournaments, but I'm also disappointed I haven't won one of them."

If Stricker is to be an elite player -- and by his consistent placement in the world's top 20, we've got to believe he is -- he simply needs to become a closer. With his 42nd birthday on Monday, you've go to wonder if that part of his game will ever come to fruition.

6Allen Stanford.
Anytime the PGA Tour and LPGA issue separate statements about the same person within 64 minutes of each other, it's either really good news ... or the other kind.

Vijay Singh

Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire

Despite an investigation into Stanford Financial, Vijay Singh has continued to wear the company's marks because of his endorsement contract with the embattled investment firm.

Turns out it was the other kind for the head of Stanford Financial, who is accused of orchestrating an $8 billion fraud by the SEC (no, sports fans; that isn't the conference for schools like the University of Florida and LSU) and was foiled in his attempt to flee the country on Wednesday morning.

So why are the biggest men's and women's golf tours getting involved? Because the company is heavily invested in each circuit as a title sponsor and partner with some of the game's biggest names, as Vijay Singh signed a big deal with Stanford recently and Morgan Pressel, Henrik Stenson and Camilo Villegas are among others that have a relationship with the company.

(In a bizarre offshoot of this story, CNBC's Darren Rovell reported that Singh will continue honoring his obligations to Stanford until further notice.)

It's gotten to the point that golf writers need a business degree as much as baseball writers need a background in pharmacology.

In regards to the Stanford St. Jude Championship, scheduled for June 11-14 in Memphis, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem released this statement: "We have no comment regarding the situation with Allen Stanford and certain of his companies at this time. However, we want to categorically state that the PGA Tour event in Memphis will be played as scheduled this year."

Shortly thereafter, the LPGA released this statement from chief communications officer David Higdon about the newly named Stanford Financial Tour Championship, slotted for Nov. 19-22: "The LPGA has been closely monitoring the developments regarding the situation with Allen Stanford and some of his companies. We remain in close contact with our tournament owner of the Houston event sponsored by Stanford Financial, and they will continue to update us on any new developments related to this matter."

What will happen to these sponsorship obligations should be left for a business mind better than mine, but we can certainly all agree it was bad news for Stanford -- and his golf-related partners -- this past week.

7 Michael Campbell.
The 2005 U.S. Open champion very well may celebrate the Big Four-Oh on Monday with a small party, a cake, some presents ... and by nursing an ongoing shoulder injury. Surprise!

It's been rough going for the Kiwi ever since his improbable victory at Pinehurst four years ago. Though Cambo finished second on the European Tour's Order of Merit that season, he's fallen further off the pace in each campaign since then; even a pair of late third-place results left him at 69th on last year's final money list.

And now the news is even worse. Campbell suffered the injury while removing luggage from an airport carousel in November, and it doesn't appear to be healing as quickly as he would have liked. He has already withdrawn from the NZ PGA Championship, to be played March 5-8, and there is currently no timetable for his return.

The lesson, as always: Pack a lighter suitcase.

Three wishes

8 I wish I knew what I would do if I were a highly ranked U.S. Amateur champion.

Here is option No. 1: Turn pro and try to earn a PGA Tour card through either sponsors' exemptions during the second half of the year, or if that fails, Q-school. Intriguing proposition, but one that comes with a catch: If the Am champ turns pro, he forfeits his invitation to compete in the next Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.

Two years ago, Colt Knost chose this path and though he didn't find direct success, it did lead to his ultimate goal. The 2007 U.S. Amateur winner earned only Nationwide Tour playing privileges at Q-school that year, but won twice last season to solidify his place on the PGA Tour.

Here is option No. 2: Remain an amateur, keeping the game sharp through various means -- collegiate golf, playing on sponsors' exemptions, etc. -- while awaiting the opportunity to compete in each of the next season's first three major championships.

Last year's winner, Danny Lee, chose this road ... sort of. He will remain an amateur until after playing Augusta National this April, but plans to forgo the next two majors -- as an amateur, at least -- by turning pro afterward.

Which option would I choose? No idea. My heart says stay in the Crow's Nest and reap all of the rewards that come with being the Am champ, but my head says strike while the irons are hot, because you never know when the game could go south.

9 I wish Fred Couples, Kenny Perry, Vijay Singh and all of these other old fogeys would tell the rest of us where they're hiding that damned Fountain of Youth.

Eight months shy of his 50th birthday, Couples finished in a share of third place at Riviera, proving he can still contend on any given week. It comes on the heels of a victory from Perry, 48, at last month's FBR Open -- his fourth in his last 15 appearances. And at 45, Singh remains the world's No. 4-ranked player, having won three late-season events last year.

It's an undeniable fact that professional golfers now have a longer shelf life than ever before.

Perhaps the bigger story, though, is that the age range for elite-level players has broadened in recent years. It used to be that, save for a few extreme exceptions on both ends of the spectrum, the world's top talents would all be grouped in, say, the 24-42 age range. That has now expanded to cover those from 17 to 50, meaning there is a greater cross-section of ages across the board.

How else to explain Perry and Rory McIlroy winning events in the same week? Or Couples contending on the same day Danny Lee earned his first victory?

It's often been said that most golfers peak between the years of 32 and 36 or so. While that may still be true, more than ever the 30-somethings are taking on comers from all directions that are either becoming elite players earlier or remaining at that level later in their careers.

10 I wish the International Golf Federation had been more creative in its formal bid to have golf included in the 2016 Olympic Games.

From a statement regarding the 76-page questionnaire that was submitted to the International Olympic Committee Programme Commission this past week: "The IGF is proposing 72-hole individual stroke play for both men and women. Leading players expressed that this is the fairest and best way to identify a champion, mirroring the format used in golf's major championships."

Yawn.

Is the goal of this to be fair or produce a compelling Olympic event? During a time when golfers' exploits will pale in comparison to those competing in everything from track and field to swimming and diving, the IGF would be better suited hosting a tournament that could differentiate itself from the 99 percent majority of stroke-play events that already populate the world's major tours on a weekly basis.

I already went on record last year as stating that, if accepted as an official event, this was an opportunity for the federation to branch out from the norm. My idea: Two-person teams from each country, consisting of one man and one woman, competing in a four-round event with formats including a scramble, best-ball, alternate shot and stroke play. Really, who wouldn't want to watch, say, tandems of Tiger Woods/Paula Creamer, K.J. Choi/Ji-ya Shin, Adam Scott/Katherine Hull and Henrik Stenson/Helen Alfredsson?

Then again, it's hardly a given that the world's elite players will show up anyway.

"The issue I see with golf as an Olympic sport is, who is going to play?" Jim Furyk said prior to last year's PGA Championship. "I love the Olympics, I love watching them, but I love watching the sports where that is the pinnacle of their career. .. And if we put in golf, I don't see where the Olympics is going to have to be more important, so you would have to ask them; but Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson would have to represent the United States right now and would it be more important for them to win the Olympic gold medal or more important to win the Masters, the PGA, the U.S. Open or the British Open? ... So if it was for our amateur golfers, I think it would be great. For our professional golfers, I'm hesitant."

Doesn't exactly sound like a guy who's ready to hop aboard a plane to Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro or Madrid. And yet, he's the type of player being targeted by the IGF.

"The IGF is recommending an Olympic field of 60 players for each of the men's and women's competition, utilizing the official world golf rankings as a method of determining eligibility," its questionnaire stated. "The top 15 world-ranked players would be eligible for the Olympics, regardless of the number of players from a given country. Beyond the top 15, players would be eligible based on world ranking, with a maximum of two available players from each country that does not already have two or more players among the top 15."

Sounds very similar to the standards for the annual WGC-World Cup, which in the past two years -- just as an example -- has featured U.S. teams of Boo Weekley/Heath Slocum and Ben Curtis/Brandt Snedeker. Nice players, sure, but not exactly Tiger and Phil.

I'd hate to see that trend continue if the sport is recognized for the 2016 Olympic Games. Perhaps a more interesting format would have helped make the decision more difficult.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.


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11
Swing thoughts

• In last week's W18, I wondered whether any of Dustin Johnson's 201 total strokes at the AT&T were shown during the televised broadcasts. Turns out, four of 'em were. (During his opening round at Pebble, there was a bunker shot on 14, then an approach, missed putt and tap-in on 15.) Still ... that's less than 2 percent of his work for the week. Gotta be some kind of record for an eventual trophy winner, right?

• Speaking of last week's events, there must have been some cruel irony for Michelle Wie in losing to a player named Stanford. Funny, I don't remember Jack Nicklaus ever getting outdueled by Joe Ohio State.

OK, since you're wondering: The last time a PGA Tour player lost to someone with the same surname as their college (as far as I can tell) was at the 2000 Tampa Bay Classic, when John Huston prevailed in a field that included University of Houston grads Fred Couples (T-14) and Blaine McCallister (MC) -- correct spelling notwithstanding.

Want more? If you're looking for potential suitors to this kooky crown, the best bet is Ken Duke, whose lone Nationwide Tour victory in 2006 didn't have any Blue Devils in the mix, but his first on the PGA circuit could come against Joe Ogilvie, Kevin Streelman or Leif Olson.

• Tiger who? After a wrist injury cut his 2008 season short, my former loop Roland Thatcher will make his season debut at this week's Mayakoba Golf Classic.

• Big controversy in Nigeria, where there are plans to build a $3.4 billion vacation resort development on the grounds of a former slave port that will include a Jackson Five museum, casinos, concert halls and, yes, golf courses. "Moneymaking and historical memory are allies in the extension of capitalism," Nigerian historian Toyin Falola told the BBC. "You cry with one eye and wipe it off with a cold beer, leaving the other eye open for gambling."

• If you've ever struggled with your golf game -- and who among us hasn't? -- watching that five-chip by Tommy Armour III on Saturday was a bit liberating. And seeing him fire his wedge into the hill by the green afterwards was just plain entertaining.

• Give him an A for effort, but Felipe Aguilar's final-round wardrobe of half-white, half-black trousers capped with an opposite-colored shoe on each foot made him look like one of those delicious bakery cookies.

• How many tournaments would Robert-Jan Derksen need to win before the popped-collar look made a triumphant return? Five? Ten? A million?

• I haven't seen any advanced footage from Golf Channel's upcoming "The Haney Project: Charles Barkley," which debuts March 2, but insiders have told me it may become one of the funniest things on TV. In particular, watch for the scene in which the instructor has a bevy of balls lined up on the range, while the noted hacker must hit every single one in succession -- resulting in lots of perspiration and some R-rated language thrown in for good measure.

• My buddy Brian noted that we had the year's first official septy -- well, the first one that was brought to my attention, at least -- on Friday, when Bob Murphy made a septuple-bogey 11 on the par-4 eighth hole at TPC-Treviso Bay in the Champions Tour's Ace Group Classic. Remember, kids: Ace? Good. Septy? Bad.

• Among those apparently feeling the effects of the current economic crisis are locker room barbers. Youngsters Danny Lee, Ryo Ishikawa and Rory McIlroy don't look like they've been shorn in years; if this trend continues, what will happen to those who tote the scissors? Damn kids and their crazy hair.

12
Fact Or Fiction

There should be more than one match play event on the PGA Tour schedule.

Every year around this time my inbox becomes flooded with e-mails from golf fans proclaiming the following: "I love match play! It's such a cool format! The PGA Tour should have a lot more events like this!"

And every year I respond with the same reply: "Ain't gonna happen." For each reason the majority of fans seek more head-to-head events, the tour has a counter argument on why to avoid it at all costs. To wit:

• Increased volatility. The difference between a No. 1-seeded player and a No. 16 is miniscule compared to the NCAA hoops tourney, meaning there's hardly any notion of an upset in this format. Case in point: In each edition of this event since 2000, there have been between 11 and 13 lower-seeded players who have won first-round matches of the 32 played each time. It makes for a wacky Wednesday, but tour officials aren't amused when the likes of Scott McCarron and Kevin Sutherland are left to square off in Sunday's final.

• It's a fun format. It's true: The game of golf was built on the match-play format, not stroke play. Of course, that was well before the television set was invented. Simply put, it's near-impossible to succinctly follow all the action contained in the early rounds, while it's near-death to witness two guys playing 36 holes together on a Sunday morning/afternoon.

• Tiger always kicks butt. Woods owns a 31-6 career record at this event, claiming the trophy on three of the past six occasions. That's all well and good, but if the tour starts creating more match play events simply to appease the TW supporters, it may as well host the Isleworth Invitational. Uh-oh. Sorry, didn't mean to give the folks in Ponte Vedra Beach any ideas.

The match play format is the best way of competing against friends (or enemies) and eminently more fun to take part in than simple stroke play. The theory that watching the world's best compete in this style more than once per year (the HSBC at Wentworth not included) would be preferred, however, is misguided at best.

This is the perfect format for an early-season event, offering a chance to watch all of the world's best players compete together -- but separately -- for the first time all year. But any more than that would be too much of a pretty good thing. The above statement is FICTION.

13
Road to Augusta

Every five years of experience at Augusta National are worth 1 full stroke during the four rounds of the Masters.


There is no stat that can quantify this statement, no numbers to be crunched considering the amount of variables involved. Sure, the denominators I've allowed may be slightly skewed -- we'll never know -- but the notion is undeniable.

Maturity matters at the Masters.

For the sake of argument, let's just say that these numbers are dead on accurate. It means that Fred Couples, who will compete in his 25th edition of the year's first major this April, will own a 5-stroke head start over any rookies in the field.

Hmmm, seems about right.

Last year, Freddie missed the cut for the first time, finally snapping a 23-tournament streak that tied a record first set by Gary Player. If he continues playing as he did at Riviera, though -- Couples shot 67-70-65-69 to finish T-3 -- don't be surprised to see the 49-year-old Presidents Cup captain in contention coming to the back nine of the final round on April 12.

And don't think that figurative 5-stroke advantage won't be a decisive factor.

14
On the hot seat

Former Major League pitchers Ed Karger, Rube Vickers, Dean Chance and David Palmer would all be able to sympathize with Dustin Johnson.

Each of the four hurlers pitched a perfect game in the big leagues, but due to weather these contests were shortened to less than a full nine innings. As such, the quartet was awarded victories, but their major accomplishments are besmeared with asterisks, going down in the record books as "unofficial perfect games."


Though Johnson's 54-hole triumph at last week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was very much official -- and the $1.098 million payday very real -- there are those who believe it reeked of insufficiency due to its partial nature.

Prior to the Northern Trust Open, where he finished T-10, I spoke with Johnson about this notion and other topics.

Q: You're now tied with Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas with two PGA Tour wins apiece. Is it time to rev up the Dustin Johnson Hype Machine?
A: Sure. I'm feeling pretty good, playing well this year so far. I had a great offseason, worked hard on my game and on my fitness, so I'm feeling really good, feeling really confident about this year.

Q: What was going through your mind during those two days at Pebble when you were waiting to play but never got back out there?
A: Not too much. You know, I was just sitting around, ready to play. I prepared myself mentally to play and it's unfortunate we didn't get to play, but it all worked out well for me. The weather was just awful. There was no way we could get out and play, so it was just a bunch of sitting around and waiting, really, watching TV.

Q: Does not getting a chance to play the final round take away from the win?
A: I don't think so. I had a pretty good lead. Obviously, anything can happen on the final day, but I was pretty confident that I was going to play well. I was feeling really good, so it's unfortunate we didn't get to play four days, but sometimes that happens.

Q: Best thing about winning: The cash, the trip to Kapalua or the Masters invitation?
A: I have to go with the Masters.

Q: Man, you guys are always so political. There aren't too many 24-year-olds pulling in seven figures a week these days.
A: Well, I mean, Masters and money are both pretty good. [Laughs]

Q: Tell me what it's going to be like driving down Magnolia Lane for the first time.
A: It's going to be unbelievable. It's just going to be awesome. I can't wait.

Q: Have you been to Augusta before?
A: I've been to the tournament a couple of times, during a practice round or two. I might have gone on a Thursday once, but that's about it. I've been there a few times -- three or four times, maybe.

Q: I know you haven't had much time to think about it, but any plans to go down there for a few practice rounds before April?
A: Yeah, I'm sure I will. I live pretty close to there so it's not too hard for me to get in and out of there.

Q: I've read that you can dunk a basketball. Is that still true?
A: Yes, I can.

Q: When was the last time you tried?
A: It's probably been a month or so.

Q: How many other guys on tour can do that?
A: I don't know. Not sure.

Q: There are never pick-up hoops games with a bunch of the players?
A: No, we've shot around a little bit, but we've never really had any pick-up games. My little brother plays at Charleston Southern University, a smaller D-I school down in Charleston, S.C., and so I play with him a little bit. He can whoop my butt, though.

Q: If you could post up anyone on tour, who would it be?
A: [Laughs] I don't know.

Q: C'mon, give me one name.
A: I don't know. That's a good question. Make somebody up.

Q: Nah, tell me you want to take down Tiger or something.
A: [Laughs] Sure!

15
And the winner is ...

After a couple of birdie predictions the past few weeks -- Luke Donald was T-7 at Torrey Pines; Mike Weir finished solo second at Pebble Beach -- this past week's pick was a solid, if not boring, par.


In his first U.S. start of the season, Robert Allenby finished T-17, which is sort of like prognosticating purgatory. This isn't bad ... it's not that good, but you know ... it's not that bad. It's so-so. Yeah ... more or less.

On to this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where Tiger makes his return. For a little help with this selection, let's go to Rocco Mediate: "I will guarantee you [Woods] wins that tournament next week. Guaranteed. I'll guarantee it. You think he's coming out not 180,000 percent? He's not coming out, well, let's see how I do. That's not going to happen. I'll bet you he wins that golf tournament next week."

Considering Rocco was the last player to witness Tiger's game up close and personal in a competitive environment, I'll defer to him.

As I've been saying ever since Thursday's announcement, Woods isn't making his season debut at this event just to get in some work and go home Wednesday afternoon. He's motivated right now and a motivated Tiger is a scary proposition for the competition.

Woods is the selection to earn his fourth career Match Play win Sunday.

16
Quote of the week

"Hello, America!"
-- Ryo Ishikawa in his first words at the first news conference of his first U.S. pro event.

If it sounds eerily familiar, there's good reason.

Thirteen years ago, another young pro made his initial pay-for-play appearance on the PGA Tour, kicking things off with a similar two-word salutation: "Hello, world!" The confident greeting notwithstanding, Tiger Woods hardly had an immediate impact on the 6 billion Earth-dwelling humans he addressed in that media session, finishing T-60 at the Greater Milwaukee Open.

Let the records show that Ryo, 17, who already owns three career Japan Tour victories, didn't fare any better at the Northern Trust Open, shooting 73-71 to miss the cut by 3 strokes.

We shouldn't judge him on the final result alone, however. His 36-hole tally of four birdies, 27 pars, four bogeys and a double show he's a player capable of not making too many mistakes, while his stats (289.5 yards per drive, 61.1 percent of greens in regulation, 30 putts per round) were all very respectable.

And it's not as if Ishikawa was competing in relative secrecy, either. The number of media credentials issued to Japanese media totaled in the triple digits -- all focused on every move of the teen.

In fact, his only failure of the week may have come in trying to explain the correct pronunciation of his first name to the American public.

"How you pronounce my name, it is Ryo," he said at that news conference. "Everyone, repeat out of me: Ryo! That's it. OK, thank you."

The only problem is that "Ryo" is sort of a mixture between "RO" and "YO" -- a sound that doesn't come easily in the English language.

My advice? Let's all try to figure it out, because the kid is going to be around for a while.

"I'm just concentrating on my golf," he said. "My ultimate goal is to win the Masters. But to achieve that goal, I have set up small goals in each practice and hopefully I can get to the final goal."

17
All-Star redux

In last week's edition of the W18, I was broached with a question about the PGA Tour holding its own all-star competition and how it could work logistically. I won't repeat my thoughts on the matter, but those who missed it can find the section here at No. 16.

Lots of e-mails on this subject. Let's post the two best ones.

From Kevin in New Jersey:

In my opinion, the tour already has at least five all-star events: The Masters, the U.S. Open, The Open Championship, the PGA Championship, and the Players Championship. These fields are all stacked with the best players in the world just like the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB all-star games, but even better because the players are actually playing for something instead of screwing around.

This was a popular opinion, but allow me to once again point out that of the five tourneys mentioned, only the Players is run by the PGA Tour. Kevin continues:

If you want to follow an example, how about Arthur Ashe Kid's Day? From what I understand, each year it's well attended, heavy on charitable contributions, loved by sponsors because they can flaunt their products, and since it's geared towards kids, it's almost as if players will be forced to participate. Assign each tour pro a group of kids, and the kids benefit from the player's performance in a skills competition. Run it before one of the majors, and as long as it doesn't cut into the player's prep time, they'll probably say OK.

Interesting idea. Very intriguing. ...

From Jeff Shapes in Stamford, Conn.:

Golf already has an all-star competition: In even-numbered years, it's the Ryder Cup and in odd-numbered years, it's the Presidents Cup. However, with the latter a clear second-class citizen to the former, why not conduct it every four years and have a three-way competition between the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world?

Near the top of every golf fan's wish list, it seems, is some sort of combination of the Ryder and Presidents Cups -- perhaps a playground hoops-ish "win-and-stay-on" format that would include two of the three aforementioned teams each year. Well, it's never gonna happen, due only in small part to the fact that the Ryder Cup is run by the PGA of America and the Presidents Cup is handled by the PGA Tour. That said, there's nothing that states the tour can't attempt to trump its counterpart by changing the format to include Europe, as well.

It's wishful thinking, but dreams can come true, right?

18
From the inbox

In this week's mailbag, Tim Delaney in San Antonio checks in with the following:

Is it possible that Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim do not have a copy of Tiger's playbook? The need to be a world player should not trump winning majors, should it? It really is all about the money -- see Ernie Els. Don't ya think they need a few more PGA Tour skins and a major or two before they should want to become world players?

Couldn't disagree more. I don't see how competing at Riviera would have Kim and Villegas any more prepared to win a major than competing in the Johnnie Walker Classic. Would you also criticize Padraig Harrington -- winner of three of the past six major titles -- who is also considered a "world player"?

And yes, money is a factor, too. Anthony has told me on a few occasions about wanting to make some pricey purchases, most notably a new house for his mom. Guaranteed appearance fees and a chance to compete in the rich Road to Dubai absolutely play a factor, though if you wanted to take a more positive stance, you could contend that it's a great thing that some of the game's rising stars are going global with their game and showcasing themselves in front of more people.

What is one small step back for the PGA Tour (which, frankly, hardly felt the sting of Kim and Villegas eschewing the Northern Trust Open) should be considered a huge leap forward for growing the game internationally. Let's not be so xenophobic as to think otherwise.

Got a question for the inbox? Hit me at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.