There was a time when a comment from his opponent in the Match Play Championship, even tongue-in-cheek, would be an extra bit of motivation that Woods didn’t need. Most famous at this event was in 2006, when Stephen Ames was asked about playing Woods and said that anything could happen, adding with a big smile, “Especially where he’s hitting it.”
Woods beat him 9 and 8, the most lopsided score in tournament history.
But that was when Woods was No. 1 in the world. He is the No. 19 seed this week at Dove Mountain.
That was when Woods was winning two majors a year. Now he hasn’t won a tour event in more than two years.
So when Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who faces Woods in the opening round today, said that his opponent is “beatable,” Woods didn’t seem the least bit bothered.
“I feel exactly the same way as he does,” Woods said. “I feel he’s beatable, too.”
Then again, that goes for all 64 players in the field for the first World Golf Championship of the year. The difference in talent at this level of golf is miniscule. Over 18 holes of match play, it’s even smaller.
The best example might be Luke Donald, the defending champion and No. 1 player in the world. For his opening round, he gets to play Ernie Els, a three-time major champion and seven-time winner of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, where each match is contested over 36 holes.
Not since the inaugural Match Play Championship in 1999 has No. 1 against No. 64 featured such big stars, when Woods beat Nick Faldo.
Of course, there’s a reason Els comes in as the No. 64 seed.
The Big Easy hasn’t won since the South African Open at the end of 2010, and he only got into this tournament because Phil Mickelson is taking a family vacation (Paul Casey later withdrew with injury). If his results don’t improve quickly, he might be out of the Masters for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Donald has had a slow start to the year. He tied for 48th in the Abu Dhabi Championship, and closed with a 78 at Riviera last week to tie for 56th, the first time in more than two years that he didn’t earn ranking points despite making the cut.
Even so, he’s coming off a year in which he won money titles on the PGA Tour and European Tour, and won a career-high four tournaments, starting with the Match Play Championship. Donald was so dominant at Dove Mountain last year that he never played the 18th hole all week in competition.
“He had an unbelievable year last year, and becoming world No. 1. So he’s got a lot going for him,” Els said. “It’s 18 holes, you know? It’s not like I’m the worst match-play player in the world, either. I think I know what I need to do. You’ve got to keep the ball in play. You’ve got to keep it in play on every single hole, because he’s going to be in every hole.
“It’s basically who can make the most putts and make the most birdies,” he said. “So we’ll take it from there.”
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy makes his PGA Tour debut this year by taking on George Coetzee, who is playing for the first time ever in America as a pro. Coetzee got in when Casey’s shoulder injury from snowboarding was not fully healed.
Lee Westwood is the No. 3 seed and will play Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium. Martin Kaymer, who lost in the championship match to Donald a year ago, is the No. 4 seed and opens with Greg Chalmers of Australia.
Match Play is loaded with examples of those who play good rounds and lose to someone who made one more birdie, and guys who can’t break par who are lucky enough to play someone even worse.
Only twice has the No. 1 seed lost in the first round — Woods in 2002 and Steve Stricker in 2010.
Stricker, the fifth seed who opens against Kevin Na, is coming off a five-week break designed to keep his head fresh and build up strength in his left arm, a product of a neck injury.
No one knows how long they will stay. The smart players don’t even bother looking ahead in the bracket to see whom they might face in the next round. Ben Crane opens with Bubba Watson, interesting in that their caddies are sharing a room this week. One of them will be checking out this afternoon.
“If you get on a roll and you play well, you can run the tables here,” said Stricker, who did just that in 2001 as the No. 55 seed.
“I don’t think it really matters where you come from, to tell you the truth,” he said. “They’re all good players. There are 64 good players here, and they deserve to be here. They’ve shown that they’ve played well over the last year to be within that top 64. So you need to play well, just because everybody is good.”
Woods is a three-time winner of the Match Play Championship, yet this is the first time he has not been among the top four seeds. He shared the lead at Abu Dhabi going into the final round and tied for third, and he was in the penultimate group at Pebble Beach, four shots out of the lead, when he played with Mickelson and shot 75.
He is hitting the ball well. There are times when he is putting well. He is not yet winning.
As for the “beatable” comment? Woods said such things used to motivate him “quite a bit” when he was younger.
“But as I’ve matured and gone beyond that, it’s just an opinion,” the 36-year-old Woods said. “What matters is how I go out and play, and how I’m progressing in my game. At the end of the day when I’m retired, I think I’ll have mastered a pretty good record.”
Fernandez-Castano — known as “Gonzo” by the European press — won the Singapore Open last year for his fifth European Tour victory. This is his first appearance in the Match Play Championship.
Even though Woods no longer is not top of the world, the Fernandez-Castano is approaching it the same way so many others have before, that he has nothing to lose.
“It’s a funny feeling because being 47th or 48th in the world ranking at the moment, you don’t expect to be paired against Tiger Woods,” he said. “But those things happen. He’s probably not at his best. And you have to look at it that way. Maybe it’s a good chance to play good. And maybe I can beat him. That would be a great feeling.”
“As I said before, I’m the underdog. I have nothing to lose,” he said. “And at the same time, I don’t think he’s at his best. So it’s a good opportunity. If I play well, I can beat him. I know I need to play good. He’s a great match-play player.”