Hitting the Match Play high notes

February, 20, 2011

Editor's Note: See Sobel's NCAA Tournament-style bracket here.

Trying to predict golf tournaments is an exercise in futility, but trying to predict the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship might be the literal definition of "inexact science."

And yet, that doesn't mean we can't employ some prior knowledge in an attempt to prognosticate what might take place this week outside Tucson.

Let's break down the four brackets to help with those annual office pools -- for, uh, entertainment purposes only, of course.


Strength: Youthful exuberance. The only bracket with two teenagers (Ryo Ishikawa and Matteo Manassero) also features a half-dozen players in their twenties.

Weakness: Recent wins. Plenty of proven champions in this mix, but only one player owns a victory so far this season -- Charl Schwartzel at the Joburg Open.

Best opening-round match: There isn't a non-winner playing better on the PGA Tour than Nick Watney, who owns three top-six finishes in three starts this year, but Anthony Kim is a fiery competitor who thrives in this format.

Best potential later-round match: It would take the desert stars aligning precisely right, but if the Molinari Bros. each pull off three victories, they would face each other on Saturday morning.

Upset special: Steve Stricker is a wily veteran and one of the world's best putters. His opening-round opponent Manassero has nothing to lose, though -- and plenty to gain.

Retief Goosen

Sleeper: Martin Laird has proven his Scottish roots translate to great desert golf, as he's posted a win and a playoff runner-up in his last two starts at the PGA Tour's stop in Las Vegas.

Winner: Only Matt Kuchar posted more top-10 results on the PGA Tour last year than Retief Goosen, whose overall consistency failed to capture a victory. That said, consistency is rewarded in match play and the now grizzled -- and sometimes grizzly, depending on his facial hair decision -- veteran has plenty of experience in this format.


Strength: Ball-striking. There isn't a better collection of pure swings in any other bracket, as these guys should hit many of the course's large greens in regulation very frequently.

Weakness: Jetlag. Five of these 16 players are not regular members of the PGA Tour, which ties for the most in any bracket and means there could be plenty of redeyes going out on Wednesday -- and maybe coming home, too.

Best opening-round match: Hunter Mahan and Sean O'Hair are close friends, employ the same swing coach (Sean Foley) and often play practice rounds together. It will be interesting to see if they can get into a more competitive mode against each other for this one.

Best potential later-round match: Adam Scott was Rory McIlroy about a decade earlier. A can't-miss superstar with a billion-dollar swing, he's been very good at times and very average at others. Perhaps young McIlroy will seek tips on how to better remain on the championship path.

Upset special: In 10 career starts at this event, Jim Furyk has never advanced beyond the third round. He'll face a guy in Ryan Palmer who is already playing some strong early-season golf.

Martin Kaymer

Sleeper: Yuta Ikeda has now played in 13 career PGA Tour-sanctioned events and never finished better than T-22. It's only a matter of time before the 25-year-old makes a splash, though. He owns eight career international victories.

Winner: Tough road game for European Tour member Martin Kaymer, huh? Not exactly. The world's No. 2-ranked player actually lives just 75 minutes away in Scottsdale and while he won't commute during the week, he's not quite a foreigner when it comes to playing desert golf.


Strength: Overall talent. Top to bottom, no bracket has more raw talent than this one. Though Tiger Woods obviously skews the numbers as far as major victories, three others own such hardware and another three have already won titles this season.

Weakness: Injuries. Tim Clark has a bad toe, Camilo Villegas has a bad back and Ernie Els has a bad neck -- all of which has caused them to withdraw from tournaments in recent weeks.

Best opening-round match: There might not be a better first-day pairing on the entire sheet than Geoff Ogilvy versus Padraig Harrington. Someone should mic these guys up, too; as two of the game's more thoughtful and eloquent speakers, their conversations could be riveting.

Best potential later-round match: Chicks dig the long ball. So, too, does everyone else, which means a possible second-round matchup between Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson would be a fun "anywhere you can hit, I can hit further" experience for all.

Upset special: Peter O'Malley. Nick O'Hern. And now & Thomas Bjorn? Tiger Woods has been felled by unexciting, methodical plodders in the past. Coming off a recent victory in Qatar, the veteran Bjorn will hardly be in awe of his decorated opponent.

Jeff Overton

Sleeper: It's been a quiet year so far for Jason Day, but this is the type of event that has turned very good players like Geoff Ogilvy and Henrik Stenson into high-profile ones and he's ready to make such a leap.

Winner: There aren't many more talented PGA Tour members without a win than Jeff Overton. He proved last year that he can not only hang with the world's best, but can do so in this format, playing brilliant golf at times during the Ryder Cup. Boom, baby.


Strength: Match play experience. Exactly half of the players in this bracket have competed in at least one of the last two editions of the Ryder Cup.

Weakness: Driving distance. In this format, it's often an advantage to hit your approach shot second and on this course booming drives have plenty of fairway to find. Only Phil Mickelson and Alvaro Quiros qualify as big hitters from this group, though.

Best opening-round match: Only one Wednesday game features a matchup of former AMPC finalists, as Ian Poulter is the defending champion and Stewart Cink was runner-up in 2008.

Best potential later-round match: Rickie Fowler has long looked up to Phil Mickelson and the veteran has taken the youngster under his wing, even pairing with him in one match during last year's Ryder Cup.

Upset special: After skipping this event last year, Mickelson decided to forgo vacation with his family and play this time around. You've got to wonder whether his heart will really be into it, though, or whether he'll have the jet gassed up and ready to join Amy and the kids as soon as possible.

Ross Fisher

Sleeper: Anders Hansen is only two weeks removed from coming up one stroke shy of forcing a playoff with Quiros in Dubai. That result did allow him to become the last man to automatically qualify for this week's field.

Winner: Is there a more underrated player among the world's elite than Ross Fisher? He might not look pretty, but he gets the job done, including a fourth-place performance in this event two years ago and a World Match Play title later that season.

The Semifinals: Fisher over Goosen and Kaymer over Overton.

The Finals: Kaymer over Fisher.

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

Jason Sobel | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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