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New World Order: In this format, these eight are matchless

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

TUCSON, Ariz. -- It's often the most unpredictable day in golf, fraught with early departures, embarrassing upsets and prickly misadventures in something called jumping cholla.

While the cholla hurts most of all, pride takes a big hit too. Imagine flying halfway around the world for a tournament appearance that can end after, say, 13 or 14 holes.

Happens every year at the Accenture Match Play Championship, at least to an accursed few.

But the guys on this list have made a habit of avoiding the pitfalls of Wild Wednesday and sticking around for the longer haul, travel particulars notwithstanding.

The true connoisseurs will tell you match play is an art form, learned over years of trial and error, which is probably why the Europeans tend to dominate the event, since they frequently play the head-to-head format as kids growing up, while the Yanks skew more toward the highly individualistic stroke play.

Last year's finale was a case in point, with England's Luke Donald beating Germany's Martin Kaymer at the Ritz-Carlton in a battle of European Ryder Cup players.

"I've always thrived at match play," Donald said last week. "The fact that we do play a lot of individual stroke-play tournaments during the course of the year, when you have a match-play event, it's something different. It's new. It's a bit of a different strategy to it that makes for very interesting TV.

"I certainly enjoy the challenge of one-on-one. It's a tough challenge it's a tough format, because you can have days that you play well and go home. I think all of the players really enjoy that difference."

Well, the ones that aren't re-booking their flights back to Europe or wherever Wednesday night.

Donald last year won for the first time in the States in five years -- snow didn't stop him, nor did hail in the middle of the match. Donald, undaunted, won the match and eventually became the first dual member to top the PGA and European tours in earnings in the same season, thanks in large part to his match-play payday.

Why stop at eight, why no top 10? Well, as everybody knows, in most match-play events, everything is conducted in multiples of four.

There's an important caveat as it relates to who made the cut. While a player Like Ernie Els won the European Tour's match-play title at Wentworth a total of four times, it also takes current form into account. No offense, but Els mustered one top 10 in the States last year and has an atrocious record at the Accenture event. Nine times in his 11 starts there, he has headed home on Wednesday or Thursday.

So it's mainly about form andformat.

But then, it's also about the event itself, which is why a Ryder Cup stud like Lee Westwood, who has a 16-11-6 record against the Yanks, isn't on the list. He's a forgettable 7-11 at Accenture and has never made it past the second round.

1. Luke Donald
Flag: England
World ranking: 1
Accenture mark: 16-6
After last year, need you ask? For context, Donald won this event by drilling Kaymer in the finale, then played Ian Poulter in the finals of the smaller Volvo World Match Play in Spain. It has often been said of Donald that he is the ideal match-play practitioner because he never gives away holes, and it's true. In his per-round average last year in PGA Tour play, he averaged the fewest bogeys, was second in birdies and had fewer three-jacks than any other player. You want to take down Luke Donald? You'll need to do it yourself, because this guy's not big on gifting. "I just don't think I make a lot of mistakes," Donald explained. "I think that's my biggest advantage in match play. The last thing you want to do is give away holes to silly mistakes, and I try to limit those." Donald has played in the Accenture event seven times, and five times had finished in the top 10. He's 8-2-1 in Ryder Cup play. He's coming off a career-defining season. In a word, in this format at the moment, he is matchless.

2. Tiger Woods
Flag: USA
World ranking: 20
Accenture mark: 32-8
OK, so the haters are going to call this a lifetime achievement award. Sure, Woods was bounced in the second round in 2009, didn't play in 2010 and lost his opener to Thomas Bjorn last year. But even with all that, he still has seven top-10 finishes in this event in 11 appearances, and given the upheaval of match play, that's an incredible statistic. With three victories and a runner-up finish, nobody comes close. Throw in the trio of victories Woods mustered at the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur, and a mark if 4-1-1 in singles play at the Ryder Cup and you are talking about a formidable adversary. The question this week is whether Woods can piece together the disparate parts of his game. Over and over, one of his 14 clubs has let him down, including his putter, which he will sorely need on Dove Mountain's overcooked greens.

3. Ian Poulter
Flag: England
World ranking: 25
Accenture mark: 18-8
For whatever reason, Poulter seems to gnash his teeth and grind away when he gets into head-to-head play, as evidenced by his victory last year over Donald in the European Tour's match-play event. Geez, if only he was this dialed in during stroke play, huh? In eight Accenture starts, Poulter has only once been kicked to the curb on the first day, won the title in 2010 and has finished in the top 10 five times. Then there's his Ryder resume. Poulter is fast become known as the feistiest of all the European players -- giving Sergio Garcia a run for his melodramatic money -- amassing an 8-3 mark in his three Ryder appearances, including 3-0 in singles play. Poulter is a bit of an unknown at the moment, though, having failed to crack the top 40 in his two 2012 starts.

4. Geoff Ogilvy
Flag: Australia
World ranking: 49
Accenture mark: 20-4
Outside of the Englishmen on this list, Ogilvy could rightly lay claim to being the best at the distinctive, mano-a-mano format. After all, for a spell, he was a bracketology favorite after winning twice and finishing second over a four-year span starting in 2006. Ranked as high as third in the world at one point in his career, Ogilvy has been in a flat spot after an injury-riddled 2011 season. Maybe this week is the tonic to turn him around. Ogilvy has a 7-6-1 mark in the Presidents Cup, which is a bit better than it sounds, given the losses of the International teams in that series. In a surprise, he lost last year to event rookie Bubba Watson in the third round.

5. Paul Casey
Flag: England
World ranking: 24
Accenture mark: 16-9
OK, so the "current form" portion comes with an asterisk on this pick. Casey had to withdraw last week after separating a shoulder while snowboarding before Christmas, which is a pity, because the Arizona resident has shown a propensity to perform at this event, and this venue. Casey finished second in consecutive years and, like Poulter, is a former winner of the European Tour's match-play tournament. Casey has a 3-2-4 mark at the Ryder, which doesn't make anybody gasp. But looking at it another way, he's lost twice in nine Ryder matches, which is a pretty fair 5-2 overall points percentage.

6. Sergio Garcia
Flag: Spain
World ranking: 16
Accenture mark: 12-10
He's never flashed his best match-play form in this event, though he nearly went all the way in 2010, the last time he made an appearance. The Ryder Cup rabble-rouser won four matches before he was carved up 7-and-6 by Poulter in the semifinals and eventually finished fourth. Garcia, who shot 64 in the final round at Riviera on Sunday and finished T4, has been at his best at the Ryder, where he has a career mark of 14-6-4 in five appearances. No player makes better use of emotion and motivation than does Garcia, who learned all the match-play tricks of the trade from his Spanish masters, Seve and Ollie.

7. David Toms
Flag: USA
World ranking: 31
Accenture mark: 23-9
Sure, you're surprised. It's easy to overlook this guy, since he has been around forever and seemed to have begun a sharp decline in 2010 from which few 40-something-year-olds recover. But his Accenture record underscores why he can be a dangerous player in this format -- like Donald, he's a shorter hitter who can apply pressure by hitting green after green after green, then making the occasional putt. One of the least flashy players of the past two decades, Toms nonetheless won the Accenture at La Costa in 2005 with one of the most impressive ball-striking days in event history. He wasn't eligible to play in two of the past three years, but seems to have reconstituted his game. This deserves a tip of the cap -- only Woods has won more matches in this event than D.T.

8. Steve Stricker
Flag: USA
World ranking: 5
Accenture mark: 10-8
Why are we picking a guy who was bounced in the first round in each of the past two years at Dove Mountain? Experience, for one. Stricker won the Accenture event in 2001, and while he hasn't been a consistent contender like Ogilvy and others on this list, he has a match-play pedigree worth noting. Stricker is 14-11-1 in combined Ryder and Presidents cup play, and besides, when it gets down to gut-check time, who would you rather have rolling the rock in the desert than this guy? Stricker has already logged a victory this season and is the top American player in the world ranking. One of the less-heralded kids might take him down, as was the case last year with teenager Matteo Manassero, but in handicapping match play, we'll lean toward experience almost every time. Just like with Toms, Stricker doesn't get caught up in playing his opponent's game.


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