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HSBC Match Play event counts for more

Both tournaments have only 16 players and offer six figures just for showing up.

The World Match Play Championship in England, which starts Thursday at Wentworth, has a roll call of champions that rivals any tournament. It is four days of 36-hole matches, the purest form of golf. There is no such thing as a fluke, which explains why all but four champions since it began in 1964 have won a major.

The Target World Challenge in California, an end-of-the-year event Tiger Woods created five years ago, is four rounds of stroke play and sunny weather, usually capped by an exciting finish.

But that's not what really separates these two limited-field tournaments.

The World Match Play Championship has credibility, earned more by its spot on the calendar than its 40-year history. The European Tour added it to the schedule, meaning a portion of the earnings ($1.8 million for the winner, $107,000 for first-round losers) counts toward the money list.

And for the first time since anyone cared, all 16 players will get world ranking points -- more points than are available to the 144 players competing in the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro on the PGA Tour.

Is that fair?

``That's a joke,'' Fred Couples said. ``Sixteen guys? Come on.''

Thomas Bjorn sees it differently.

A year ago, he beat Len Mattiace in the first round, Masters champion Mike Weir in the quarterfinals, British Open champion Ben Curtis in the semifinals, and lost to five-time World Match Play champion Ernie Els in the finals.

``It was the most draining week of my golfing life,'' Bjorn said. ``You stand there on Sunday, you've given so much of yourself, and in the world ranking you have nothing to show for it. But there are players in America and somewhere else getting ranking points.''

No one can question the field assembled at Wentworth -- five of the top eight players in the world, featuring No. 1 (Vijay Singh) and No. 2 (Els).

And no one can accuse this of being the IMG Invitational. IMG owns the tournament, used to invite whomever it wanted and -- this may come as a shock -- most of those players turned out to be IMG clients.

But when HSBC became title sponsor, it created strict criteria for getting in -- the defending champion, the No. 1 player in the world, the top 10 players available based on their major championship performance, the top two players from Europe's money list, and the top two players from a points-based ranking of four European events.

Target is played the second week of December, a month after the PGA Tour season. It cannot and should not count as official money.

But is there any reason players should not earn world ranking points?

``I think they should, absolutely,'' said PGA Tour policy board member Brad Faxon, who has never played at Target.

Reminded that Target had only 16 players, Faxon added, ``Good players deserve that.''

Woods' tournament also has criteria for qualifying -- the defending champion, the next 11 players available from the world ranking and four sponsor's exemptions. This year's field includes five of the top nine from the world ranking, with the exemptions going to Jay Haas, Fred Couples, John Daly and Colin Montgomerie.

Both tournaments had eight guys who chose not to play.

``Wentworth is about the same as us,'' Woods said. ``With it being a world ranking event now, I think we have a good shot. They're setting a precedent, so we can possibly get ours now, as well.''

Maybe not.

For a tournament to get ranking points, it must be an official event on one of the six tours around the world. The other criteria is that the field -- no matter how small -- must be determined by performance.

``Target would meet the objective field eligibility,'' PGA Tour spokesman Andy Pazder said. ``Where it gets tripped up is with official money.''

Among those in Woods' corner is Els, even though the Big Easy has never played at Target.

``It should go down as an official win,'' Els said. ``It's not like Tiger invites 12 of his friends. They qualify for his event, and they play for a hell of a lot of money. It's a tournament. You play four rounds. You still have the same pressure to win that tournament.''

Els had to beat only three guys last year at Wentworth.

Davis Love III had to beat 15 other players last year at Sherwood Country Club, including the tournament host, who nearly made up a 10-shot deficit with 10 holes to play.

``When he birdied five holes in a row, I knew the game was on,'' Love said. ``And I had to play hard.''

It might be the finale of the silly season, but the desire to beat the best can outweigh the $1.2 million given to the winner.

``I don't go there for the handshakes,'' said Couples, the undisputed king of the silly season.

Then again, more than half the golfers at Target play as if they're on a working vacation if they get off to a bad start, knowing there's still $150,000 for last place.

And when half the eligible players don't show for either tournament, it raises the question about whether these elite fields deserve any ranking points at all.

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