This week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is golf's version of March Madness -- except that it's in February, lacks the drama of the NCAA men's basketball tournament and sometimes has a No. 64 seed who actually beats a No. 1 seed. But, hey, if we end up with another Jeff Maggert-Andrew Magee type final -- the way we did in 1999 -- there's always the Tucson Open.
Tiger Woods wasn't the kind of hot you want to be in withdrawing with the flu and fever after the second round of the Nissan Open. But word is he's feeling better, and when it comes to match play, it's hard not to like his chances. For all the Tiger-haters out there, just ask yourself this: Whom else would you want in a match if your life was on the line?
That said, Woods doesn't exactly have the easiest road (another dissimilarity to March Madness) to the final four. Defending champion David Toms and Adam Scott are both in his bracket, along with Henrik Stenson and Chad Campbell, both of whom could be tough outs this year. Woods did catch a break when first-round opponent Stephen Ames replaced Thomas Bjorn, who withdrew with a neck injury.
By the way, Tiger has won this event twice before.
Getting back to Scott, he's a player I like in my final four. The Aussie hasn't won on tour in almost two full years (not counting his win at the rain-shortened '05 Nissan, which was unofficial), so you figure he's due. He also has the all-around game to fare well in this format. Scott has an 11-4 career record in the Match Play and won three matches last year before losing to eventual champion Toms 2 and 1 in the quarterfinals.
If you've followed along this season, you know I like Sabbatini's and Furyk's games a lot. Sabbatini finally broke through for his first win since 2003 with his victory at the Nissan last week, and Furyk finished T-12 at Riviera. It's probably too much to expect Sabbatini to go back-to-back, especially with Vijay Singh potentially waiting in the second round, but if Vijay continues to miss putts, Sabbatini could make it to the round of 16. As for Furyk, he has reached the quarterfinals three times in his career. With arguably the easiest path to the final four, Furyk's fairways-and-greens game (not to mention plenty of Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup experience) could carry him all the way to the finals.
Michael Campbell's a bit tougher to judge. He showed a lot of poise with the way he putted at Pinehurst last year, but then again, he has played only twice on the European Tour this season, and one of those starts actually came last year. More recently, he missed the cut at the Johnnie Walker with rounds of 72-74.
But, as Brandt Jobe said earlier this week, you can play well and lose and you can play bad and win. And that's the logic with liking a guy like Campbell. There might not be much of a body of work to judge from this season, but if you paid any attention to how Campbell played in winning the U.S. Open, you know he has the game to win here, too.
It was tough to trim the list of guys not playing well, so let's just take a look at five players who could be in for a short week. Some of these names might surprise you.
After a rookie season in which he had four top-10s, including a win, Sean O'Hair has hit the old sophomore slump. He has missed the cut in four of his last five tournaments, and -- depending how you look at it -- his best finish was either a T-27 in Maui (where there were only 30 players in the field at the winners-only Mercedes) or a T-61 at the Nissan. In match play, your number of strokes doesn't necessarily matter the way it does in stroke play, but the fact that O'Hair has just one round better than 71 in his last 11 isn't a good sign.
Another guy we haven't seen much of this year is Ben Crane. He has been plagued by a neck injury and hasn't teed it up since he withdrew after shooting a first-round 71 at the Buick. He also plays Justin Leonard in the first round. Although he's a former U.S. Amateur champion (1992) with plenty of match-play experience (two Ryder Cups and four Presidents Cups), Leonard hasn't fared particularly well in this event, but he'll beat Crane.
As good a player as Singh is, you might be surprised to know that he never has made it out of the second round of this event. I think this will be the year he does, but if I could have a mulligan pick, it probably would be the likely match between Singh and Sabbatini.
Conversely, Davis Love III has done well in this event. Two years ago, he reached the 36-hole final against Tiger after beating Fred Couples, Scott, Phil Mickelson and Darren Clarke. But when you're 41 and have battled myriad injuries through the years, two years must feel like seven years.
Item that might interest only me
After closing with a 67 Sunday at the Nissan Open, Ernie Els boarded a plane and made the four-hour flight to Hawaii to visit a golf course he's building outside Honolulu. Els spent a day in the Aloha State before landing in La Costa for the Match Play.
Pick to win
You have to throw all logic out the window when it comes to this tournament (or just pick Woods). I'm not doing the latter this week, so I'll pin my hopes on Campbell. There's something steady and unnerving about the Kiwi's game that I like in this format. Maybe it was all those 15-footers he drained at Pinehurst. Doing something like that in match play can destroy your opponent mentally.
CHRYSLER CLASSIC OF TUCSON
If you're playing in Tucson, it usually means you're not playing all that well. This year might be different, however, with a crop of talented young players giving new meaning to the term "baby boomer."
Watson has tailed off a bit since he bashed his way to a fourth-place finish at the Sony Open last month, but some of that has to do with the courses he has played since then -- Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach -- and the local knowledge and experience you need to fare well. Nothing against Tucson National, but it's just not in the same class as those two venues. Expect big Bubba to do well here.
As for Villegas, it's amazing to see how far this kid hits it given his relative stature. But when you're ripped, you don't need to be built like John Daly or Els or Woods to rip it 300-plus yards off the tee. Like Watson, Villegas has struggled at classic venues, but he'll be one of the guys you can't miss in Tucson this week.
However, neither of them might be as impressive as the opening-round 64 put together by England's Justin Rose at last week's Nissan. It was all downhill from there for Rose -- he didn't break 70 after that -- but here's thinking that his second trip to Tucson will be better than his first; he missed the cut last year.
Kevin Na broke down crying here a year ago after he suffered his second playoff loss in a three-week span. On the bright side, Na ended '05 with more than a million bucks in the bank and seven top-25 finishes. The downside? Last week's Nissan Open, where he missed the cut after rounds of 68-76, was his first tournament of '06 after suffering a hand injury in the offseason.
On the topic of downsides, there was a Shaun Micheel sighting with that final-round 67 in L.A. last week, but those have been rare. Since winning the 2003 PGA Championship, Micheel -- much like other fluky major winners of this generation -- hasn't exactly blossomed into a star. He has just three top-10s since that magical day (for him, anyway) in August '03 and has missed two of four cuts so far in '06.
Item that might interest only me
David Duval made the cut in only one of 20 events last season. This year, he has finished 31st, 45th and 53rd. Not exactly the kind of stuff he displayed as the former World No. 1, but certainly an improvement.
Pick to win
Say it with me: Camilo Villegas (pronounced vee-JAY-gus).