Hunter Mahan will defend his title this week at the Accenture Match Play, the first of the four annual World Golf Championships to be staged once again in Marana, Ariz., at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain.
This will be the 15th playing of the WGC event and the fifth at this venue in the hills north of Tucson. While the course can be stretched to over 7,800 yards, the elevation of the property and changing tee positions will make the yardage play shorter. The layout offers interesting options and lines for the bombers and the undulating greens and surrounding mountains offer an advantage for the short game gurus. The course proves to be a fantastic match-play venue as 73 percent of last year’s matches were decided on the final three holes.
Contrary to popular belief, even though this even is taking place in southern Arizona, weather may be a factor. Mother Nature normally has quite an effect on the outcome of the matches. Ian Poulter weathered the cold, rain and wind in 2010, while Luke Donald bested Martin Kaymer and a light blanket of snow in 2011. This week’s forecast of a cold front stampeding through the high Sonoran Desert Tuesday night into Wednesday morning should make the first couple rounds of this edition of the Accenture Match Play quite intriguing.
In this field, these brackets, this tournament, is challenging. In this tournament, a No. 1 seed is no free pass into the round of 32. In this tournament, weather is a factor. And in this tournament, mental and physical toughness will be tested over the span of five consecutive days.
As beguiling as the weather will be for some players this week, the format itself will pose a challenge to some, as well. The two players that reach the finals will have played upwards of 100 holes of golf in the span of five days — including 36 on Sunday. The elevation of the course combined with the number of holes to be played will test the physical endurance of even the fittest players in the field. Aside from the physical nature of this unique event, the mental fortitude needed to be successful this week is paramount. The mental grind that comes with this format will test the players that advance through the rounds. For most of these players, this is the only match-play format they will play all year — a format that requires a totally different mind-set from a normal tournament and exposes those that lack the mental toughness to weather an opponent holing out from a bunker or draining a long par putt. Any player that arrives in Tucson this week in a less-than-optimal physical or mental state will be tested. Those that are in a positive state of mind and body will surely have an edge as the week wears on.
The strength of golf worldwide has greatly increased, and so too has the number of participants in this tournament that represent countries other than the United States. Not only have the foreign players been qualifying for the matches, but they’ve been very successful. In the last three tournaments, only one-third of the final eight players have hailed from the U.S. The four top seeds this year represent four different flags — Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, England’s Luke Donald, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Tiger Woods.
Although Woods has walked away with the title in this event three times (2003, 2004, 2008), Americans have only won two of the previous seven trophies. There is, however, a new contingent of fearless, talented young players representing the red, white and blue. Their games are as brash and intriguing as their names — Rickie, Keegan, Dustin, Bubba and Hunter. These fresh American faces will battle each other as well as the stalwarts coming from all around the globe. The cold-blooded Ian Poulter and fellow Englishmen Lee Westwood and cool-hand Luke Donald are always fierce match-play competitors. McIlroy looks to improve on his runner-up finish here last year and disappointing 2013 debut in the Middle East.
Even some of the more unheralded players in the field have tremendous resumes. Nicolas Colsaerts brings Ryder Cup experience with him from Belgium while South African Branden Grace brings multiple European Tour wins in 2012 alone. Every player in this field has earned his spot and is capable of beating anyone else. The seeding of these players can be very deceiving. In the last three years’ worth of matches, eight No. 14 players have won first-round matches and two more took their games to 20 holes. Six 15-seeds have upset their first-round opponents and two more took their matches to 19 holes. Four players seeded No. 1 have been beaten by their No. 16 seeded counterparts — including Woods in 2011. This field of 64 presents no respite for any player, no matter what the seeds may indicate.
The talent of the players in this field makes this an extremely difficult tournament to predict. But with the great talent will come great excitement and surely produce high drama in the high desert.