Your Guess is as Good as Mine

By: Tony Dear

Good luck picking a winner at this week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.

The betting form "horses" are journeymen Mark Wilson and Bill Haas; the world No. 1 has never done well in the event; and Tiger Woods continues to struggle with his swing and apparently fragile state of mind.

Seriously, save your money for the real horses.

Back in the old days before the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship or the Dove Mountain Course it's played on even existed, everyone knew who golf's great warriors were. Every time the World Match Play tournament at Wentworth in England came around, there was always a good chance Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Ian Woosnam or Ernie Els was going to win. Whenever Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Larry Nelson, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite, Peter Oosterhuis or Colin Montgomerie played a Ryder Cup singles match, opponents knew they stood little chance of earning their team a point. And back in the early days of the PGA Championship, when what is now the season's fourth major was contested in match-play, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen proved especially hard to beat.

Trying to predict what will happen in a largely unpredictable sport has always been a fool's game, of course. And the very nature of one-against-one matches - 18-hole matches in particular - gives even the most unlikely David a reasonable chance of overcoming the dead-certain Goliath when his stars align perfectly. But punters placing bets on the outcome of a golf tournament used to feel a certain degree of comfort, at least during match-play events, when one of the game's great pugilists went head-to-head with some poor sap that drew the short straw.

Not anymore. In recent times, it seems that either everyone has learned how to love the format or no one has, as choosing a winner at the foremost match-play tournament of the season has become an increasingly fruitless task, nothing better than a wild stab in the dark, a game of pin-the-tail-on-a-moving-donkey.

In the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf that eventually morphed into the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, little-known Barry Lane beat slightly better-known David Frost in the 1995 final. Since the event became part of the World Golf Championships series 12 years ago, there have been nine different champions, six non-major winners among them.

Ernie Els, who won no fewer than seven World Match Play titles at Wentworth, has reached the semifinals at the Accenture only once in 10 appearances and been knocked out in the first round five times. And though Tiger Woods has had three victories since 2002, the former top-ranked player in the world's Ryder Cup record is far from what one might expect of a once-dominant player. Geoff Ogilvy has two victories and a runner-up finish in the last five years, but went out in the first round in '08 and the second round last year.

In short, choosing this year's winner at Dove Mountain is really anyone's guess. Sure, you might expect the game's elite seven or eight players in the 64-man field to advance to the fourth round or beyond, but then no one who follows the game closely would have trouble believing the final-four could be players seeded in the teens, 20s, 30s, or even lower. Indeed, the field for this year's tournament includes only a very small number of players for whom a victory would be considered a major shock.

You might have trouble envisaging Japan's Hiroyuki Fujita claiming his first PGA Tour win, for instance. And likewise, Yuta Ikeda, Kyung-Tae Kim, Anders Hansen and Brendan Jones (remember him from 2009 when he met Woods, who was returning from knee surgery, in the first round?) aren't heavily fancied. But with his record at this event - never advancing past the second round in 10 tries - you'd have to say that No. 1-ranked Lee Westwood is no more likely a winner than any of them. And with his Sean Foley-built swing not yet producing the results he hoped for, it appears current No. 3 Woods isn't exactly favorite material either.

The champion 12 months ago was Ian Poulter, who beat fellow Englishman Paul Casey in the 36-hole final and proved in the 2008 Ryder Cup and again in Wales last October that he really does possess a special knack for match play. Poulter came into the tournament last year ranked No. 11 in the world. Now at No. 12, there's no reason why he can't notch his second PGA Tour victory and claim the $1.4 million first-place prize.

Part of the Hogan bracket, Poulter goes up against Stewart Cink in Wednesday's first round. In seven Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup singles, the 2009 Open Championship winner has won three and lost four matches, but Cink's recent finishes at the Accenture suggest he's a much better match-player than his team competition record suggests. Cink reached the final in 2008, was beaten by Ogilvy in the semifinals in 2009, and last year lost to Casey in the quarterfinals. He hasn't made a glittering start to the '11 season, but he is a doughty competitor and certainly no pushover. This should be one of the more intriguing ties in the first round.

Another match of note pits two of the game's great young players - 26-year-old Charl Schwartzel and 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa - against each other. The South African has played five events on the 2011 European Tour (two of them in December last year) and finished in the top-10 in all of them, winning the Joburg Open in his homeland in January. He will be determined to establish himself once and for all in America, where he impressed many with his runner-up finish to Els at the WGC CA Championship in Miami last year. But he faces a Japanese superstar who already has 10 wins as a professional under his white-leather belt and who made an impressive debut in the Presidents Cup in 2009, beating Kenny Perry in the singles and finishing with a 3-2-0 record.

World No. 2 Martin Kaymer versus Seung-Yul Noh is another clash of young titans that will interest many; Ogilvy and Padraig Harrington will take a decent-sized gallery around the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ritz Carlton GC with them; and many will be curious to see how the PGA Tour's player of the year so far, Mark Wilson, copes with playing his approach shots to long par-4s and par-5s from 60 yards farther from the green than his opponent, Dustin Johnson. And not only will Wilson, who won the Sony and Waste Management Opens, have to deal with Johnson's towering drives, he'll also be playing the man who trounced Kaymer 6 & 4 at Celtic Manor and obviously knows a thing or two about strategy.

Perhaps the first-round match that will attract the most attention, however, is that between Italy's Matteo Manassero and America's Steve Stricker, the youngest and second-oldest players in the field, respectively (Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez is three years older than Stricker). Manassero, who doesn't turn 18 until April, will be playing in only his second tournament in the U.S. and, should he defeat Stricker, could come up against Ishikawa, the event's other teenager, in the second round.

Manassero is one of 29 European Tour members in the field this week. In 2010, three of the four semifinalists were Euro Tour regulars, while the fourth was from Colombia. The same could happen again this year. Or, it could be four South Africans making up the final four, or four Aussies, or a quartet of Koreans. And who knows, one or two of the 24 Americans in the field might even make it to the semis.

With this amount of talent spread among the 64 players, pretty much any scenario is possible.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at