64 of the world's top 66 ranked players descend upon Ritz-Carlton Golf Club for the 15th edition of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Always a highlight for the viewing public, who observe all of the world's best players for the first time of the year, with the Masters within 50 days. In addition to the stellar field, the format is also a highlight for golf fans worldwide.
Match Play is common within amateur golf, but, within the professional game, it is not particularly prevalent, with the Presidents Cup, and Ryder Cup, providing an annual taste for most fans. However, this tournament offers an opportunity to witness the players take on, not the field, or the course, but each other. As individuals, in a head-to-head encounter. That makes for fascinating viewing, and an engrossing experience for the players themselves.
Match Play, itself, provides a unique challenge, and required approach to the game. The pressure is immediate, as you desire to gain the upper hand on your opponent early in the round. It's not simply a case, as is the case in strokeplay, of having a solid start, but, rather, a better start than your competitior. A significantly different mindset is required, which certain players appear to thrive on. You are not taking on the course, trying to shoot the lowest score possible, but, instead, trying to shoot a lower score than your individual opponent, on each individual hole, irrespective of what that entails for your overall scorecard.
In that sense, Match Play can also have a direct impact on your strategy. If your opponent has to take a penalty shot, you may consider playing the hole in a more conservative manner, in order to ensure of victory on that particular hole. Another subtelty of Match Play, is that you can play badly, and still progress. (Providing your opponent plays worse, of course). Alternatively, you can also play brilliantly, shooting one of the lowest rounds of the week, but find yourself knocked out by a slightly more impressive opponent. Just a peculiarity of the format. A format which, in the modern game, ensures that very few results, can be genuinely considered an "upset".
During Wednesday's First Round, there will be 32 Matches. The 64 players are divided into four brackets, of 16, and inside these brackets, named after legendary figures of the game; Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Sam Snead; the players are seeded, based on their current World Ranking. Rory McIlroy, world number one, is the top seed of the Bobby Jones bracket, and will take on Shane Lowry. Tiger Woods is the top seed of the Gary Player bracket, and will take on Charles Howell III. However, there may be over 60 players between these players in the World Rankings, should Lowry, or Howell, win, it shouldn't be considered a genuine upset.
There is such parity in the professional game now, that there is very little between the top players, and, subsequently, should McIlroy, or Woods, be slightly off their best form, then it will become likely that they will be eliminated. Such as the cut-throat nature of Match Play, and the depth of quality now found in the upper echelons of the professional. In addition to the opponents themselves, with the streaky brilliance of Lowry, and the steady consistency of Howell III (who has a scoring average of 68.06 this season). All of these variables make for an intriguing week, for the players, and fans.
Does Match Play always identify the best player of the week? Almost certainly not. However, it does identify a player who thrived under the most intense of head-to-head pressure. For that, the WGC-Accenture World Match Play is one of the genuine highlights of the golfing calendar.