Reigning FedEx Cup titleholder Henrik Stenson and defending champion Matt Kuchar head the World Golf Championships—Accenture Match Play Championship field which gets underway today on the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout at Dove Mountain near Tucson, Ariz. The Accenture MatchPlay Championship represents the first of this year’s four World Golf Championship events.
This year’s temperatures—with lows in the 40s and highs near 80, and no precipitation in site—are nothing like the snowstorm that forced the PGA TOUR’s first-ever snow day last year.
Viewers can tune into the unpredictable drama at Dove Mountain Wednesday from noon-6 p.m. ET on the Golf Channel; Thursday and Friday from 2-6 p.m. on the Golf Channel; Saturday, from noon-2 p.m. on the Golf Channel and from 2-6 p.m. on CBS; and Sunday from 9 a.m.1-p.m. on the Golf Channel and 2-6 p.m. on CBS.
Even with No. 1 Tiger Woods, No. 2 Adam Scott, and No. 4 Phil Mickelson choosing next week’s Honda Classic as their next Tour event, 16 of today’s 32 matchups are potential Ryder Cup showdowns, beginning with Wednesday’s leadoff bout between Ian Poulter and Rickie Fowler.
“Always nice to play match play; it’s no big secret with me,” Poulter said. “It’s one of the purest formats in golf. You can play fantastic, be 6 under par and be going home. You can shoot level par and be staying. So you just have to do enough to dispatch your opponent and hopefully I can do that.”
The Englishman won this event in 2010 and is a staple—or thorn depending on one’s point of view—on the European Ryder Cup squad, while Fowler’s record in either the Match Play or Ryder Cup is not as impressive but his potential is just as relevant.
For many in the 64-man field, the Accenture Match Play Championship is the one week per year that they compete in this format. Match play presents unique challenges.
First and foremost is the fact that no one is guaranteed another day. Every other World Golf Championship guarantees players four days of competition. Most PGA TOUR tournaments don’t pare their field until after the second round. The 64 players who travel to the Tucson area for the year’s first WGC are only ensured one round.
“There’s something quite special about the mano-a-mano value of match-play golf. It’s a great format. It’s very reactionary,” said Graeme McDowell, a quarterfinalist at last year’s Accenture Match Play. He’s 6-7 in 13 career matches at the event. McDowell won the deciding point at the 2010 Ryder Cup, capping off a year that also included his first major title, at the U.S. Open. He also won the 2013 Volvo World Match Play Championship.
Justin Rose also had a memorable match-play moment in the Ryder Cup, winning an unlikely singles point over Phil Mickelson that was pivotal in Europe’s come-from-behind victory at Medinah in 2012. Rose was 1 down with two holes remaining, but holed a 35-foot birdie putt at No. 17 and birdied No. 18 to steal a 1-up victory.
“There’s always a big putt in match play,” Rose said. “I’ll face putts and face emotions that are almost like the back nine of a Sunday. … You face it from round one.”
Match play is used for many of amateur golf’s biggest events, such as the U.S. Golf Association’s championships, the British Amateur and Western Amateur. The NCAA Championship has used the format since 2009 to decide its team champion.
Professionals only see it sparingly, though. The objective is still the same: to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes possible. The opponent changes, though. Now it’s only the man in front of you, not 156 competing throughout the course and the day. Players must decide if this difference will cause them to alter their strategy.
With wide fairways and the occasional forced carry over a desert wash, course strategy at Dove Mountain is at a premium. The greens present Dove Mountain’s biggest test for golfers, with undulations that help raise the drama of a match. Built into lush, hillside terrain just northwest of Tucson, the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course already had been awarded the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship before it opened in 2008.
Here’s how defending champion Matt Kuchar recently described Dove Mountain: “It’s important to really be in control of your approach shots, whether it’s with shape or with spin. That’s kind of the key part of playing well at Dove Mountain. And then the putting, I think you just have to really be creative and really be able to see a lot of things that go along with speed. I think speed’s so critical with so much slope. I think that getting the speed of the putts down, with that much break, is such a critical ingredient.”
The Golf Club at Dove Mountain is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. The Saguaro and Tortolita nines were named to Golf Digest’s 2013-14 ”Best In State” ranking for Arizona. This year, Golfweek included the Saguaro and Tortolita nine among its Best Resort Courses list. The courses also made Golf.com’s latest list of the Best Public Golf Courses in Arizona.