Golf: Faldo relishing his shot at Tiger

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The Independent Online
ALIEN AS it is for Americans to undersell anything, golf's new global era, which begins today with the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship at La Costa, is being promoted with the slogan: "Now destiny has a tee time". Actually, the most interesting tee time of today's first round is that at 10.44am (18.44 GMT) when Tiger Woods plays Nick Faldo.

As the embodiment of a modern sporting phenomenon, Woods is the one most likely to have destiny on his side, not just to beat the increasingly ancient-looking Faldo but to triumph in Sunday's 36-hole final. "It seems like Tiger has been gearing himself up for this for the last month," said Sweden's Jesper Parnevik.

Woods won his first tournament for nine months two weeks ago and was runner-up to Ernie Els in Los Angeles at the weekend. In stark contrast, Faldo has missed two cuts in three tournaments this season and only made the elite 64-man field when Jumbo Ozaki's withdrawal took the entry list down to 65th in the world. "It's a good opportunity for me," Faldo said. "The odds are not that great but I'm not intimidated. My golf has been a mixture of karaoke and rap. It's called `krap'."

Nothing but a quick return to his best will do for the six-times major champion. But rather like when he suddenly found himself in contention at the Masters in 1996, the 41-year-old is still motivated by the biggest challenges. One thing that is in favour of all the underdogs this week is the fact that a match over 18-holes narrows the margins.

"It is like a sprint while with 36 holes stamina and strategy comes into it a bit more," said Faldo, who has twice won Wentworth's autumnal World Match Play, which is played over the classic 36-hole distance. Colin Montgomerie equates 18-holes to just one set of tennis, but a better analogy is best of three sets as opposed to the best of five in the majors.

Woods beat Ian Woosnam and Lee Westwood before losing to Mark O'Meara at Wentworth in October but has been caught out over 18 holes. He lost to Costantino Rocca at the 1997 Ryder Cup and to Santiago Luna in the Alfred Dunhill Cup last year. With O'Meara, he also lost a fourball match to Faldo and Westwood at Valderrama.

"That week I learnt how good Nick is at matchplay and to never write him off," Westwood said. "He is more than capable of beating Tiger." After his first look at the La Costa course, where Woods won the Mercedes Championship in 1997, Westwood did however agree the lay-out was set up perfectly for the world No 1. "If you can drive the ball 295 yards, you don't have to be that straight. It is disappointing to see 40-yard fairways at a prestigious event like this."

Westwood, who is not looking past his first-round encounter with Argentina's Eduardo Romero, is a fan of the format. "We don't play enough matchplay," he said. "This is a great addition and is going to be an exciting week."

But whereas Europeans grow up playing matchplay tournaments, the format is less widespread in the States. The New York Times, no less, ran the simplest of idiots' guides to matchplay on Monday while David Duval, the world No 2, is suspicious.

"I am not the biggest fan," Duval said. "You never get what you deserve. I think everybody is a little anxious and apprehensive to see how it comes off. You could conceivably have the No 1 player in the world shoot six under and get beat, and the No 2 player might shoot three over and win. That's not right."

But it is matchplay, which Woods, in contrast, calls "a true test of a player's character". Els, O'Meara and Vijay Singh, all recent Wentworth champions, should be his main rivals, as might Montgomerie if the Scot can get past his heavyweight first-round tie with local Craig Stadler. Monty won the same sponsor's last unofficial event but whoever collects the $1m (pounds 625,000) this week will have to win six hard matches and probably have to beat the world No 1.

"Tiger Woods is the man to beat," said Fred Couples. "Look at his record in matchplay. I would think he is licking his chops. When you are a great player, he should be there the whole match. It's going to take a great match to take Tiger to the 18th hole."