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No surprises really in Match Play format

Nearly unbeatable as an amateur, Tiger Woods was asked a few years ago what was different about match play as a professional.

``The field,'' he replied.

That's never more true than at the Match Play Championship, a free-for-all among the top 64 players available in the world ranking that starts Wednesday at La Costa Resort.

How fickle is this format?

Woods is the only player among the top 16 seeds who has even reached the final in the first three years of the Accenture Match Play Championship.

``The fields are so deep that anybody can beat anybody at any given time,'' Woods said. ``This format, as you've seen in the past, is a perfect illustration of that -- guys getting knocked out who are the higher seeds early in the tournament, just because these guys are all good.''

It was never that way as an amateur, where Woods won three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs, then a record-setting three straight U.S. Amateurs.

Then he turned pro.

His match-play record is a respectable 13-4 (14-5 including the ``Showdown at Sherwood'' victory over David Duval and the ``Battle at Bighorn'' loss against Sergio Garcia), but his only real victories came in singles at the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.

Woods was knocked out by Jeff Maggert and his magnificent wedge game in the quarterfinals in 1999, the inaugural Match Play event. Darren Clarke wiped him out, 4 and 3, in the final two years ago at La Costa.

Woods played a purer form of match play, 36 holes per match, at the World Match Play Championship in England three years ago and was beaten by his buddy, Mark O'Meara, on the final hole at Wentworth.

That explains why he studied the pairings after a practice round Wednesday and wouldn't let his eyes wander too far along the brackets. First up is Peter O'Malley of Australia, the No. 64 seed. That's all that matters.

It usually takes three rounds or more for a player to get wrapped up in a match-play situation, like Woods against Bob May in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, or Phil Mickelson against David Toms last year in the PGA.

Head-to-head play starts for the 64 players Wednesday when they get to the first tee and shake hands with their opponents.

What to expect? Anything.

Just ask Steve Flesch, who traveled halfway around the world to Australia last year and was 5-under after playing nine holes in the first round -- and he was 2-down to Per-Ulrik Johansson, who was 10 under through 14 holes when he closed out Flesch.

``All I remember is that it was a long way to go to shoot 5-under in nine holes and have to go home,'' Flesch said. ``But that's the fickle nature of match play.''

Woods took particular notice of Toms, the No. 6 seed, going up against No. 59 Rory Sabbatini of South Africa, whose only PGA Tour victory came two years ago in British Columbia. Sabbatini finished one stroke behind last week at Riviera and was three strokes behind the week before in San Diego.

``Look at this one,'' Woods said. ``As good as Rory has been playing lately, that would not really be an upset.''

Players say there is no such thing as an upset, which is not to say players don't get upset. Ask anyone -- or try to, anyway -- after losing an opening match and heading to the airline counter to check on flights home.

Among those running that risk are 10 Europeans, a few Aussies like O'Malley and Adam Scott, Japanese players like Shingo Katayama and Toshi Izawa.

``You have to give your best, and you enjoy it when you deliver,'' he said. ``But imagine that you can play a great round, but your opponent has a better day and you end up losing. I don't think there's much fun about it.''

Olazabal gets Justin Leonard. It would be fascinating if they could recreate their Ryder Cup match from two years ago -- minus wives running across the green -- when Leonard holed a 45-foot putt on the 17th hole to clinch the cup for the Americans.

Then again, Olazabal has been playing brilliantly the past few weeks, and Leonard got married two weeks ago. Might he be a little unfocused?

``I think for a guy that can run a marathon, he can take care of all that business,'' Olazabal said.

Woods is in the business of winning, and that's one reason he took last week off to get rid of the flu, build up some strength and fine-tune his game for the only World Golf Championship event he hasn't won.

He knows match play can be unpredictable, but loves it for that very reason.

``It's right there, just going head-to-head and looking them right in the eye for however many holes it takes,'' he said. ``Win or lose, it's a great feeling.''

Thirty-two guys will feel much better by the close of business Wednesday.

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