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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Updated: February 19, 12:19 PM ET
Match Play definitely a free-for-all

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

MARANA, Ariz. -- Last year when Hunter Mahan won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he led the field with 35 birdies and didn't trail in a match after the third hole in the second round.

Yet he came very close to losing his first-round match to Zach Johnson, who pushed him to 19 holes.

"Definitely that was the match that kind of propelled me and kind of made me believe a little bit that I could keep going and digging deep," Mahan said later. "That first match kept my attention up there and made me realize & I have to stay focused and I have to put everything into it, and I can't give into being a little bit tired or not being as focused as I need to be."

With the first round of the match play to start here on Wednesday at the scenic Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain, this field of 64 players will need to heed all of Mahan's advice if they want to walk away with the $1.4 million first prize on Sunday night.

But as Mahan reminded us on Monday, match play is a very fickle thing.

"You can be playing great and playing as good as anybody coming in here and lose [in] the first round because somebody got hot that day and played better than you," Mahan said.

On paper, Tiger Woods is supposed to beat Charles Howell III in their first-round match in the Gary Player Division. Tiger was masterful in his victory last month in San Diego. All aspects of his game are jelling, perhaps for the first time since his last tournament victory here in 2008, an 8-and-7 trouncing of Stewart Cink.

A three-time match play champion, Woods has only been ousted twice in the first round in 12 appearances at the event. Those upsets came in 2002 at the hands of the Peter O'Malley, the 64th seed in the tournament, who beat Tiger 2 and 1 and Thomas Bjorn in 2011 in 19 holes.

The well-worn axiom -- anybody can beat anybody on any given day -- is the truest for golf in the match play.

For this reason, Woods won't take Howell lightly in their match on Wednesday morning. The 75-time winner knows that despite Howell's meager two career wins, he is a tough match-play contestant who has had his own good start to the new season with a tie for third, a second at the Humana and a ninth in San Diego.

In the 2003 Presidents Cup, Woods and Howell were paired together in the foursomes and four-ball matches, compiling a 2-2 record. U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus put Tiger and Howell together in those matches in South Africa because of the close bond they had formed practicing together at Isleworth near Orlando.

Howell isn't the only potential giant-killer in the first round. Here are some of the matches slated for Wednesday that I'm going to be watching very closely.

Charl Schwartzel vs. Russell Henley, Bobby Jones Division

Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, has probably been better than anyone in the world going back to the end of last year. The 28-year old South African hasn't finished outside the top five in a tournament since a tie for 16th at the BMW Masters in October. He had wins in December at the Alfred Dunhill Championship and the Thailand Golf Championship. Last week, he tied for third at the Northern Trust Open.

But in Henley, Schwartzel faces a man with nothing to lose. The 23-year-old rookie, who won the Sony Open in January, is playing in this event for the first time. The former Georgia Bulldog is a free-swinging kid too inexperienced to be scared by the moment. He might not beat Schwartzel, but he won't shy away from a fight.

Hunter Mahan vs. Matteo Manassero, Gary Player Division

The 19-year-old Manassero won the Barclays Singapore Open in November. The Italian is trying to beat a man who doesn't feel like the defending champion. "There is no defending here, it's just trying to win this week and beat the guys that are going to play in front of you, and that's going to be a tough challenge," Mahan said Monday.

In 2011, Manassero made it into the round of 16 at the Match Play.

Adam Scott vs. Tim Clark, Sam Snead Division

This pairing is much more evenly matched than their seedings can attest. The No. 2 Scott will have a very difficult time beating the straight-hitting Clark, who is a 15 seed.

In Clark's last appearance at the Match Play in 2010, he made it to the round of 16.

Rory McIlroy vs. Shane Lowry, Bobby Jones Division

McIlroy has not played in a tournament since missing the cut in Abu Dhabi. In his first appearance in the States with his new golf equipment, the pressure will be on the No. 1 in the world to prove that he is comfortable with his new wares. He knows that everyone is ready to pounce on him with the I-Told-You-Sos for changing his clubs and balls after a career year.

Lowry, a 25-year-old Irishman with two European Tour wins including the Portugal Masters in October, could benefit from the distractions surrounding McIlroy.

Jim Furyk vs. Ryan Moore, Bobby Jones Division

If Moore, one of the most decorated amateurs in history, can get past Furyk, I believe he is going to be tough to beat in future rounds that could see him facing Schwartzel and Dustin Johnson.