Accenture Match Play Championship
Accenture Match Play Championship
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World Championship without the champions

This is one World Golf Championship where introductions are in order.

A lot of them.

Playing a quiet practice round for the Match Play Championship was Skip Kendall, who has not won on the PGA Tour or even qualified for the Tour Championship. The closest he has come to an exclusive WGC event is in front of the television.

On a sweltering Monday at Metropolitan Golf Club, Jonathan Kaye stroked his goatee and swatted away flies on the practice green. He returned from a cruise on Christmas Day to find an unlikely gift -- a spot in the $5 million tournament, created for the top 64 players in the world rankings.

Kaye is No. 86.

"This is a bonus," he said. "I'm happy to be here."

That's a feeling shared by a dozen players who until this week never had qualified for a WGC event, and a dozen others who ordinarily would not be here. By week's end, one could walk away with $1 million.

"I felt this was an opportunity I needed to take advantage of," said Steve Stricker, No. 90. "I was lucky to make it."

The same could be said for Kenny Perry (No. 84) and Kevin Sutherland (No. 102), neither of whom had a WGC event on their radar screen. A victory this week might earn them enough money to get into the Masters, even the Tour Championship.

They can thank Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and Colin Montgomerie, among the 28 players who qualified for the Match Play Championship and decided their time was better spent at home this week.

The PGA Tour had to dip to No. 104 in the world rankings -- Greg Kraft -- to fill the field for the top 64 in the world. That's hardly the world-class field it had in mind when the WGC was launched in 1999.

"It feels more like you're coming to an event in Australia, like an Australian Open," Duffy Waldorf said.

Eight Americans in the field never have won on the PGA Tour. Thirteen tour events last year had a stronger field. The third alternate is Emanuele Cononica, who last month narrowly made it through Q-school.

When the Match Play Championship was at La Costa Resort near San Diego in late February the first two years, only Jumbo Ozaki failed to show up, and he rarely leaves Japan.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem conceded it was a mistake to schedule the Match Play Championship a week after Christmas, at a time when most players' games are rusty, and in a place where it takes a full day of flying just to get there.

"When we saw this on the schedule, we knew it was going to struggle," Justin Leonard said. "It's just the time of year, the distance and travel, and guys want to spend time with their families. I don't blame anybody for not coming. Guys have to want to be here."

Not even a $5 million purse could persuade players to come, especially since nearly 20 events on the PGA Tour will be worth at least $4 million this year.

"A $5 million tournament ... that's not much more than what we play for otherwise," Hal Sutton said. "Money is so high now that guys are going to play where they play their best."

And lately, that doesn't include much outside the United States.

At Valderrama Golf Club in Spain two months ago, 12 Americans stayed home. Only two Americans from the top 20 played the American Express Championship -- Woods and Leonard. Others cited travel, a bad course and the end of a long year.

At the Accenture Match Play Championship, only the excuses have changed.

Woods cited the need to stay fresh, having recently finished a journey around the world in which he played eight straight weeks, going from Washington to Florida to Atlanta to Spain to Thailand to Hawaii to Los Angeles and to Argentina.

Mickelson said he had a vacation planned. Same for Montgomerie. In fact, Europe's top six players are staying away, including defending champion Darren Clarke, who said he needed to be with his family.

Besides, a trip halfway around the world becomes even longer considering 32 players will be eliminated after one match.

While tournament organizers are disappointed, the players could care less.

"I'm here mainly because it's an opportunity to win $1 million," said Waldorf, who is ranked No. 36. "I don't get a chance to do that very often."

Among those hoping to cash in on a rare opportunity is Greg Chalmers of Australia, who is No. 100 in the world rankings and never thought he would have a chance to play in his home country with so much money on the line.

Still, he will play Tom Lehman in the first round with mixed feelings. Chalmers wanted to see a strong field assemble for the good of the game in Australia. But the only way he could play was for the top players to stay home.

"I'm excited about my chances," he said. "It's a great opportunity."

 

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