Match Play is always unpredictable

Head down, walking with a purpose, Tiger Woods was headed across the back of the range last year at LaCosta during the first day of the Accenture World Match Play Championship when he heard a familiar voice.

"Merry Christmas," said Darren Clarke.

Without breaking stride, Woods looked up for a moment, caught Clarke's twinkling eyes, and responded without hesitation, "And Happy Hannukah, too."

The references were to Tiger's gift-wrapped opening-round victory against John Rollins. Woods never deserved to win the match and he knew it. Rollins never trailed until the final hole but you don't go 20-3 in match play, as Woods has in the history of this event, and not get a few presents along the way.

If last year's tournament had been a stroke-play event, Woods figures he would have been lucky to finish top-25. The year before he went 108 holes without a bogey. Both times he won.

Woods was smoked by Clarke 4 and 3 in the 2000 finals and was knocked out by Maggert in 1999, but the loss that defines the vagaries of match play occurred two years ago.

The last time he won two majors in a season (2002), Peter O'Malley sent Woods home early. That was the year Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval, the reigning British Open champion, were knocked out in the first round.

Bloody Wednesday has been pushed back a day, but when the Accenture does begin, Woods knows that Nick Price will give him all he can handle.

"It begins right at the very first hole," Woods explained Tuesday. "You can shoot 4 or 5 under par and you're going home. Sometimes that can be disheartening. You go out and play well, but it's not good enough to beat your opponent, but you could beat everyone else in the field that particular day.

"You have to understand you just have to suck it up and hit some shots sometimes. And other times you can play conservative, but more than anything you have to be at each and every hole mentally and treat every hole and every shot like it's the whole match."

Woods enters the event for the first time as the No. 2 overall seed. Price hasn't played much this year and Tiger is riding momentum, winning three of his last five events and playing well between the rain delays at the Nissan Open. His four over-par holes were the result of three-putts.

No. 1 seed Vijay Singh draws Shingo Katayama, the Japanese player who became famous at the 2001 PGA Championship (won by David Toms) for his Cowboy hats. Singh beat Shingo 5 and 3 last year, and should win this one, but he's been bounced from the Accenture twice in the opening round, and was bounced in the second round by Jerry Kelly 4 and 2 last year.

"He's a good player," Singh said of Katayama. "I don't know how he's playing coming into this event. But I have to treat him very strong. I'm not going to treat him lightly at all."

Ernie Els is sitting this one out, moving Phil Mickelson up to the No. 3 seed. He faces Loren Roberts, a player who Mickelson admits, "makes every putt imaginable." Mickelson also doesn't have the greatest track record in the Accenture. Although he's won the Mercedes Championships twice at LaCosta, Mickelson has never made it to the semifinals. Last year, in one of his better performances, Mickelson lost to Davis Love III 1-up in the quarterfinals.

As of Tuesday, Mickelson didn't get a chance to check the Sam Snead Bracket, where potential matches loom against Paul Casey, David Toms, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott. "No, my Internet in my house got knocked out the other day and I haven't been on line," he said.

With Els out, fellow South African Retief Goosen becomes the No. 4 seed. He faces Australian Stephen Leaney in the Ben Hogan Bracket. Leaney is dangerous, making it to the semis before losing to Clarke last year. The Goose went out early, losing to John Huston and saying that he may never return to the quagmire.

Feeling a sense of obligation to the tour, Goosen returned a week earlier than anticipated after being disqualified from the Nissan Open. Fortunately for him, there were no pro-ams this week.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine