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Anything can happen in head-to-head format

Lottery begins at Match Play

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Tiger Woods usually tees it up on the first day of a tournament with the intention of winning. Expectations are a little different this week.

''You just try to advance,'' Woods said Tuesday. ''Whether you shoot 10 over or 10 under, whatever it takes to advance, that's the name of the game.''

The name of the tournament is the Match Play Championship, but it might as well be the lottery, especially considering the seeds of the last four winners: 24, 19, 55, 62.

Some players have shot 5 under par and lost. Others have shot 5 over and won.

''There's definitely luck involved,'' Woods said. ''I've had my share of good fortune.''

He also has experienced some misery, and Woods isn't alone.

Twice in the four years of this World Golf Championship event, none of the top 10 seeds even made it to the weekend. Woods has reached the finals only once, in 2000, and he was smoked by Darren Clarke.

It all begins to unfold Wednesday at soggy La Costa Resort.

Overnight rain dumped 1 1/2 inches on the golf course, and more showers created small lakes all over La Costa.

Senior rules official Mike Shea said he anticipated the course draining in time for the first match Wednesday morning, although the fairways are too wet to mow and officials are leaning toward allowing players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

Changes to La Costa could eliminate some of the surprising results. The course is about 240 yards longer -- the 17th alone has been expanded by 85 yards and now measures 483 -- and the rough is thick, like a U.S. Open.

That figures to favor the big hitters, and par might be enough to win several holes.

Not that it matters.

Match play is all about having a lower score than the opponent, then moving on to the next day and hoping for the best.

Woods became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round when he was beaten last year by Australian Peter O'Malley.

Ernie Els' luck hasn't been much better. He has never made it beyond the second round in his three trips to La Costa.

The Big Easy is back in the United States for the first time since he won the Mercedes Championships and the Sony Open in Hawaii. He won twice more overseas, establishing himself as the chief rival to Woods.

For them to play each other this week, both would have to win five 18-hole matches. It has never happened, and Woods isn't holding his breath.

''Not real likely,'' Woods said. ''It's very fickle. You don't know what can happen. How many times have you seen in the U.S. Amateur where the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds get to the final? I've never seen that happen.''

Having won two weeks ago in Australia by 10 strokes, Els took a brief vacation in Hawaii and arrived in San Diego earlier this week.

Els played La Costa on Sunday, then returned late Tuesday as the sun was setting to hit a few chips and putts on the ninth green.

''I want to play as good as I can and hopefully get through tomorrow, then hopefully get through the next day,'' Els said.

Could he win them all and see Woods in the final?

''It would be great,'' Els said. ''But the probability of that happening is not very good.''

Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, seeds mean nothing.

Woods plays Carl Pettersson, the 64th seed, who got into the $6 million tournament only when Vijay Singh withdrew with a rib injury. Pettersson was the first-round leader at the British Open, and he was runner-up to Woods at Torrey Pines two weeks ago.

Els is the No. 2 seed and plays Phil Tataurangi of New Zealand. Phil Mickelson (No. 3) plays Robert Karlsson of Sweden, while No. 4 Retief Goosen plays Jay Haas.

Haas qualified for his first World Golf Championship event. He hasn't been in match play since the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill.

''I don't know what to expect,'' he said. ''I just know that I'm going to have to play my tail off to beat anybody.''

The other trick is figuring out who they are. For the first time, there are more international players (35) than Americans (29). A dozen players are making their debut in the Match Play Championship.

All of them have a chance to win the $1,050,000 first prize. Half of them will be knocked out after playing only 18 holes or fewer.

Mickelson, a former U.S. Amateur champion, has lost in the first round the last two times he has played.

''It doesn't feel good losing in the first round, especially when you've traveled a long ways,'' Mickelson said. ''That happened to me last year.''

Well, part of it did. Mickelson lives only about 15 miles from La Costa.

''Which is even worse,'' he said. ''To be at home, watching the tournament on TV is just as bad as having to travel a long way home.''



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