I'm not sure if this week at the WGC Accenture Match Play feels like a build up or letdown.
To be sure, it's a big event. We've basically got the top 64 golfers in the world on the same 350 acres in the Sonoran Desert, at Dove Mountain just outside of Tucson, Ariz. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler… you name it, they're here. Except, that is -- and here's where the letdown comes in -- Brandt Snedeker and Phil Mickelson. Sneds is out with a recurring rib injury, and Lefty is out by choice. Sneds is the real loss for the field, as he -- along with Keegan Bradley -- is the budding match play star for the American contingent and the hottest golfer on the planet. Next year.
But we like to focus on the haves, not the have nots. It's a great, even field this week. It's match play, which we don't get that often stateside. And the course has proven to be a worthy match play host, with plenty of risk-reward opportunities throughout 18 holes spliced in the cacti-laden terrain.
But let's get to the core of the matter: ANYONE can win -- or advance deep into the tournament -- this week. Recent play really isn't much of a guide. Ryder Cup records don't help much either. It's a birdiefest and hot putters are rewarded. Bombers have an advantage. Both intense and laid-back personalities can thrive. In short, it's a crapshoot, we have to look closely at the matchups, and get a little lucky.
Here are the facts: Internationals have won this event five of the last seven years. The runner-up has been a Euro the last four years. There have been an equal number of bombers and great putters who have hoisted the big vase on Sunday. There will be some funky weather. Lots of big names will exit early.
So, with all of that in mind, I have renamed the brackets in honor of Presidents Day in the US. There are some great parallels to draw from the groupings to the many great leaders our country has seen the last 236+ years. If you want to view my full bracket, I've posted version 13 on our Facebook page.
The Abe Lincoln Bracket (i.e. Group of Death): Bobby Jones
Top seed: McIlroy
Playing the best: Charl Schwartzel
Playing the worst: Dustin Johnson
Legitimate darkhorse: Chris Wood
This is clearly the most difficult bracket of them all, with seven different major championship winners and multiple US and British Amateur champs in the mix. To compare, all other brackets have a grand total of eight majors winners combined. All of that to say that it's difficult to predict who will emerge from this group.
On the lower end of the bracket, there are some real bulldogs, including Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Charl Schwartzel and Jason Day. Bubba Watson is down there, too, as is the top-15 machine and past US Am-champ Ryan Moore. It wouldn't be surprising to see any of those guys emerge. But I like Chris Wood in this bracket, the celebrated past-British amateur who contended for The Open in 2008… and who won two weeks ago in Qatar for the first time as a professional. He matches up in round 1 against Bubba, who has WD'd and MC'd in recent weeks. Wood wants to prove his chops to the Euro Ryder Cuppers, and this would be a good start. He is a legitimate threat and I'm picking him to get to the round of eight.
Prediction: Rory will win his first two matches, but the 'Sweet 16' round will likely present a match with Graeme McDowell (likely), Paddy Harrington (less likely) or Dustin Johnson (I'm doubtful). Tough to call that. It certainly won't be an easy road, but I can't pick against Rory to win the group. But Wood has really gotten my attention the last six months and I think he could be the guy who surprises this year.
The William Henry Harrison Bracket (i.e. Not Around Long): Ben Hogan
Top seed: Oosthuizen
Playing the best: Justin Rose
Playing the worst: None
Legitimate darkhorse(s): Marcus Fraser, Branden Grace, Nic Colsaerts
While the Jones Bracket might be the Group of Death, this is the most evenly matched bracket top-to-bottom and will surely see some big names fall early. With the exception of maybe KJ Choi -- who just finished T33 at Riviera -- everyone is playing exceptionally well. While Louis Oosthuizen is the top seed, I don't think anyone would be surprised if he exited early… or won it all. There is a certain measure of inconsistency with his game. With his length off the tee and putting, however, he has to be listed among the favorites.
Keegan Bradley (4 seed) is seemingly well-positioned here, but his road will be a hard one: right off the bat he has to face Marcus Fraser, the Aussie who hasn't missed a Euro Tour cut since September and has three top-5's during that time. If he gets past this one, I think he'll roll at least two more rounds.
For my money, however, I like Justin Rose's draw in this group. He's knocked the rust off and contended twice in Europe in 2013, made it deep into the Volvo Match Play in 2012, and has a setup in which the most consistent player he could face before the semi's is Matt Kuchar -- who just went 64-73-74-73 at Riviera.
Prediction: Rose wins the group with a series of close matches. I think this group will have the most extra-holes matches of the brackets.
The George HW Bush Bracket (i.e. Clear Frontrunner): Gary Player
Top seed: Woods
Playing the best: Woods, Hunter Mahan
Playing the worst: Jason Dufner
Legitimate darkhorse: Matteo Manassero
'HW' had a clear path to the presidency in 1988 running against underdog Michael Dukakis, and that's the same route laid out before Tiger Woods -- there's just not much in this group that threatens him. But it's certainly not that simple; after all, Woods hasn't advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2008, the last time he won this event, and he's lost to lesser players than Charles Howell III, Francesco Molinari (beat him in 2012 Ryder Cup singles play), Lee Westwood and Hunter Mahan.
Still, looking at the recent play of those in this bracket, only Mahan really stands out: he's coming off of four consecutive top-16 finishes, and had a chance to win at Riviera. Plus he's the defending champ. Tiger would meet him in the quarters at the earliest, and if that happens it would mean Hunter is on his game. It's also worth noting that Jason Dufner -- coming off of his first missed cut in more than a year -- had a 3-1 record at the 2012 Ryder Cup. I just don't like his draw against Richard Sterne, who is playing great and likely won't inspire Dufner with Ryder Cup-like animosity.
As previously mentioned, great scramblers are maddening to play against in this format, and Matteo Manassero fits that bill perfectly. He's in a great position against Mahan in round 1: no pressure, legitimate underdog, but equally schooled in the rigors of match play as his opponent. He won in Singapore in November and has performed solidly since… he advanced to the Sweet 16 in this event last year, too.
At the end of the day, however, this event has had Lee Westwood's name on it since it was created… only he hasn't won it yet. In 2012, he made it to the semi's before losing to McIlroy on the 17th hole, his best performance to date.
Prediction: Tiger and Westwood meet in the quarters, and Westwood advances with Ryder Cup/Euro mojo on his side.
The Millard Fillmore Bracket (i.e. Forgotten Leader): Sam Snead
Top seed: Donald
Playing the best: Jamie Donaldson, Adam Scott
Playing the worst: Bo Van Pelt
Legitimate darkhorse(s): Paul Lawrie, Thorbjorn Olesen, Scott Piercy
Remember the good old days of the Whig Party and when Luke Donald was No. 1 in the world? Seems like they were at about the same point in time, actually. No, it wasn't all that long ago that Luke was tops and had won money titles on both sides of the pond.
Well, Luke's game hasn't changed, but a couple of guys have passed him by. He won this event in 2011, however, and his match play record overall is sterling. Anytime a great putter is involved, all bets are off -- he can certainly beat anyone.
Jamie Donaldson is an interesting X-factor in this group. He won the HSBC in late January and the Irish Open last year, so he's probably undervalued as a 7 seed. I think his matchup with Olesen is one of the best of the opening round, rematching the two from the final day of the HSBC (Justin Rose was right there, too). The Welshman is a great player and if he's as tough as fellow countryman Ian Woosnam in match play, the lower half of the bracket should watch out.
It's also worth noting that this is one of the 10-or-so events Steve Stricker is playing this year. How prepared is he? The last time he teed it up was at Kapalua, and I can't imagine he's gotten a ton of practice in since. Still, it's a great course for him to come back on -- wide off the tee and rewarding of good putters. It's just hard to predict how he'll come out of the gates.
What strikes me overall about this group is that the first-round matches are very similar: long hitters versus great putters. Donald-Siem, Lawrie-Piercy, Stricker-Stenson, Watney-Toms, Gallacher-Poulter all fall into that categorization. This tournament typically favors the long hitter, but with past champions like Poulter and Donald it shows that a great putter is never at a disadvantage.
Prediction: I like the chance of the winner of the Paul Lawrie-Scott Piercy match to go a long way. Piercy is a budding star who bombs it and has a great putting game, but he's been up and down in 2013. Lawrie has had a resurgence in his career and is one of the purest putters on the planet. Still, this bracket is set up for Poulter, who after winning in 2010 has bowed out in the second round the last two years. He's focused on the big events these days, however, and this one certainly qualifies.
The semifinalists (a European Vacation):
This is tough to look at, but no matter how many times I run through the bracket it comes up mostly, if not all, Europeans. I think the US is still a year away from claiming world dominance again -- it started building last year, and I think many of these guys need a little more seasoning. After all, there are only 22 US players in the field -- they're outnumbered. Tiger could very well win this thing, and probably needs it more than anyone else… but he still seems vulnerable. Odds are that the Euros will rule the day.
Photo: USA Today Sports Images