It is that time of year already. Folks in offices around the nation are getting their brackets ready and the mayhem is about to ensue. OK, so these brackets don't come with nearly as much hype as the other ones, but judging from my inbox, there seems to be an increased interest in the match-play format this year. Perhaps it's just fair weather fans trying to tune-up their skills for March, or perhaps people really do get excited about this anomaly on the PGA Tour schedule. Count me in the camp that loves this departure from the norm as match play can be incredibly exciting. Sure, the nature of this event rarely allows for drama on Sunday afternoon as a normal event on the PGA Tour might, but the first three days of the WGC-Accenture Match Play event are about as good as it gets outside a major.
With no event opposite Match Play this year, I'll throw my two cents in on what might happen in the desert this week. That said, predicting the outcome of any one of these matches is fairly ridiculous as anything can happen, and when I say anything, I mean anything. With that in mind, I'll spare you the match by match breakdown and go more for a broader view. With any luck, my insight will provide a sounding board against the research you've already done. Let's look at the first bracket ...
Favorite: (1) Rory McIlroy. We've yet to see McIlroy in the states this season, but if he shows his form from late last season, he'll be a factor this week. Even without his top form, he should advance to the final eight, as his side of the bracket looks extremely weak. A second-round match with (8) Rickie Fowler or (9) Carl Pettersson could be pesky, but the top seeds on his side (4) Dustin Johnson and (5) Graeme McDowell are not playing well.
Spoiler: (3) Charl Schwartzel. Schwartzel was on fire prior to last week's event and managed to carry that momentum across the pond to Riviera, coming up just short in the end. If momentum is a factor this week then Schwartzel should breeze through to the final eight. The top seed on his side of the bracket, (2) Bubba Watson, is clearly off his game.
Sleeper: (10) Ryan Moore. Moore is off to a pretty good start this season, and although a tough task lies ahead in round one in (7) Jim Furyk, if he wins, an easier second-round match will probably await. Moore made it to the final eight in his last appearance here.
The Pick: (3) Charl Schwartzel. A tough call for sure, but his current form gives him a slight edge over McIlroy.
Favorite: (2) Justin Rose. Rose is the No. 2 seed, but he looks like the biggest force in this bracket. (1) Louis Oothuizen, while a solid player, doesn't strike me as a typical top seed in this format. To be honest, this bracket is pretty much void of anyone with a solid track record at this event (at least the top seeds anyway), and that leaves us with Rose, who simply has the potential to make a long run.
Spoiler: (4) Keegan Bradley. Bradley isn't off to a great start this season, but he likes this format, and I fully expect to see him put up a good effort this week. He'll have to be on top of his game this week, though, as a tough second-round match awaits no matter who advances between (5) Ernie Els and (12) Fredrik Jacobson. Speaking of which ...
Sleeper: (12) Fredrik Jacobson. Jacobson goes as his putter goes and with the exception of one critical miss last week, he seems to be rolling the ball well. If that continues this week, he should be able to get by Els in round one and depending on which Bradley shows up for round two, Jacobson could find his way into the final 16.
The Pick: (3) Sergio Garcia. It makes sense that in a bracket with no clear favorite, the pick is a player who doesn't fit into any of the categories above. Garcia is the pick because his road looks pretty smooth. A second-round match with Matt Kuchar doesn't look quite as intimidating as it did prior to last weekend. Basically, there is no one player from this group to bank on; of all the brackets, this is the most wide-open.
Favorite: (1) Tiger Woods. Three wins, a runner-up and a handful of top finishes here. Basically, his track record at this event can't be touched. That was the old Tiger, the one who could intimidate competitors. But now that no one is afraid of him, he's vulnerable. Yeah, right. He may not win this week, but you can be sure that every opponent he faces will wonder if he has enough game to pull off the upset.
Spoiler: (2) Lee Westwood. Prior to last season, Westwood had never won more than one match at this event during a given year, but last year changed everything when he made it all the way to the final four. The road won't be easy, but his game looks pretty solid, and a potentially monumental match with Tiger would await in the round of eight.
Sleeper: (5) Peter Hanson. Hanson has the make-up to battle the big guns in this group and has proven this format is not too much to handle. Hanson finished fifth here last year and ninth in 2009. He has plenty of experience in this format and with a break or two, he could make it back to the final four.
The Pick: (1) Tiger Woods. Let me say this first, in a one-and-done format, this is not the week to use Tiger; there are simply too many factors that could lead to a bad finish. Still, he's the favorite to come out of this bracket, and I don't see any reason to pick against him. The first potential stumbling block would be in round three against Peter Hanson.
Favorite: (1) Luke Donald. A lot of talent in this bracket, but Donald appears to be the cream of the crop. If he's playing anywhere near his best, he should breeze into the round of 16. Once there he'll either meet (5) Nick Watney or one of three players past their prime. Watney is certainly a threat, but he doesn't appear to be in top form entering this week.
Spoiler: (3) Ian Poulter. Poulter is always a threat in this type of format and while the WGC-Accenture Match Play event doesn't carry the suspense the Ryder Cup does, you can bet that Poulter will get himself psyched up. Poulter has struggled here the last two years, but prior to that he had a track record second to only Tiger at this event.
Sleeper: (5) Nick Watney. As mentioned, Watney has a potential match-up with Donald in round three, which could be a problem. But if he's on his game, like he's been the last three years here, then he could be the surprise player coming out of this bracket. The road won't be easy, but whomever makes it out of this bracket will be battle tested.
The Pick: (3) Ian Poulter. There are players with more momentum than Poulter, and I certainly don't like his early-round exits the last two years, but I like his competitive fire and his track record here.
If history is any indication, picking anything beyond the first round is pretty much an exercise in futility, but that's never stopped me before. I hate to take the chalk, but in this case, I'm predicting and hoping to see an epic matchup between Tiger and Rory. The winner? Beyond golf fans? I don't think it matters. I just want to see it.
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