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Matchplay format returns again this week

Looking for a guy with a top-notch record in match play? Try Frank Lickliter, who never lost during a run of five straight titles.

Whether that serves him well when the Match Play Championship begins on Wednesday at La Costa Resort remains to be seen. After all, those five victories came in the club championship at Shaker Run, his home club in Middletown, Ohio.

The last title, which is also the last time Lickliter played match play, was 12 years ago.

Lickliter is one of several players who get reintroduced to the fickle format in the first World Golf Championship event of the year.

He never had any close calls at Shaker Run. He never played anyone like former U.S. Amateur champion Scott Verplank, either.

``All I want to do is play my game, which means driving in the fairway,'' Lickliter said. ``When you drive in the fairway, you can look at the pin. And I like looking at the pin. This rewards aggressive play, and I like that.''

Lickliter is the No. 49 seed in a 64-man bracket, which has nothing to do with his chances in the $5 million Accenture Match Play Championship.

In three years of the tournament, the highest seed to win was Darren Clarke, at No. 19, two years ago at La Costa, when he beat Tiger Woods in the final.

Woods, in fact, is the only player seeded 16th or higher to even reach the finals.

``That's the beauty of match play,'' said Joe Durant, who last experienced such beauty in the mid-1980s when he played the Cotton States Amateur in Monroe, La.

Lickliter and Durant are among 13 players making their debuts in the Match Play Championships. Some of them have had recent experience in the format, such as Charles Howell III, who is only three years removed from college, and Shingo Katayama, who plays match play every year on the Japanese tour.

Still, no one can predict how the week will unfold.

The only certainty is that the winner will get more credit than defending champion Steve Stricker, who won last year in Australia with six matches of brilliant putting, great shotmaking and gritty scrambling.

Stricker earned $1 million for his biggest victory and got a lot of questions whether he would have won had Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and two dozen other players in the top 64 had bothered to fly halfway around the world.

He doesn't feel like a defending champion, but he does feel like a winner.

``Deep down, I know what I did, and I feel good about what I did,'' he said.

His goal is to win, but even a few victories or advancing to the weekend -- no small task, even for the highest-ranked players -- would be vindication.

``Maybe a little bit,'' he said. ``But again, I don't feel like I need to back that up or try to prove anything. I played well that week. I don't need to prove myself here.''

He wasn't a one-hit wonder.

Stricker won twice in 1996 and was considered one of game's young stars until he got sidetracked by equipment changes and his constant pursuit of finding the fairway. He never used anything but a 3-wood off the tee until he was in college, and still tends to hit the ball sideways from time to time.

Put him anywhere on the green, however, and he's one of the best. He was 11th in putting last year, and a defining moment in Australia came on the first extra hole against Nick O'Hern in the quarterfinals, when Stricker holed a tricky, downhill putt from 12 feet to stay alive.

It should come as no surprise, either, that Stricker was only three strokes back going into the weekend at the Masters and wound up in a tie for 10th.

Was his victory at Melbourne a fluke? That will be debated for years because of a 64-man field missing nearly half of the top players.

Then again, it is not often that a Match Play Championship goes according to form. Because the matches are only 18 holes until the finals, anything is possible.

In the first year, Jeff Maggert, the 24th seed, defeated 50th-seeded Andrew Magee in the finals. In 2000, Clarke was the No. 19 seed when he defeated Woods. A year ago, Stricker was No. 55 when he beat Pierre Fulke, seeded No. 21.

With the depth in golf these days, it's hard to call anything an upset -- not if the guy who wins is Stricker, a mild-mannered 34-year-old golfer from Wisconsin with a killer instinct on the course; not if the winner hasn't played match play since winning his club championship in Ohio.

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