Reluctant Woods emerges to seek revenge on Gonzo

 

Marana, Arizona

Thirteen players were asked to attend press conferences on the eve of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship here. Only one declined. So much for Tiger Woods promising to become a better and more helpful person.

So instead of one man coming to 60 people, 60 people had to push and shove and stretch and struggle to hear him speak on a corner of the clubhouse just off the parking lot. He could have been selling dodgy watches out of a suitcase.

Tiger's relationship with the media is as stand-offish as it ever was but there has been a seismic change in his relationship with his rivals. Tiger's fear factor is gone. It is the end of an aura. On his first outing of the year, Woods, now world No 20, got crushed beneath a rolling Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi. Then he was humbled by Phil Mickelson in the final round of the AT&T tournament at Pebble Beach two weeks ago.

Now Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño has been sticking his hyphen into Woods' ribs ahead of their first-round clash. "He's probably not at his best," said the Spaniard, ranked world No 48. "If I play well, I can beat him. He's not going to be as dominant as he used to be." Over the years, Woods has taken revenge on those he feels have slighted his majesty. "I feel exactly the same way as he does," Woods said in response. "I feel he's beatable, too."

Fernandez-Castaño may find he is the latest Tiger victim of the "Be Careful What You Wish For Club". But Tiger claims he has mellowed and no longer feels the need to motivate himself by what his opponents say. That is surely far from the truth. "It's just an opinion," Woods said. "At the end of the day, when I'm retired, I think I will have mastered a pretty good record. We don't get the opportunity to go head-to-to-head very often. Here it's eyeball-to-eyeball. It's a one-off."

Answering a question on frustration, Woods replied: "There are times when, yeah, I get angry... And I get angry on purpose to get my energy up."

Fernandez-Castaño, known as Gonzo on tour, may need to bake some humble pie. No one will bat an eyelid if the Spaniard loses. But if Woods should fail, he is the one who will end up looking like a Muppet and doubts about his physical and mental fitness will again come to the fore. But Woods has the finest record at this championship with 32 victories and just eight defeats, winning the title three times. That should be enough class to avoid a reverse.

Luke Donald is back in the desert resort where his World Domination Tour began last year. His victory over Martin Kaymer sent him off on a stellar season that took him to the summit of the game. Inspired by the mountain-range backdrop and the Stetson-shaped peaks made famous by The High Chaparral, it is a case of déjà view for the 34-year-old from High Wycombe.

"I obviously have great memories here," Donald said. "It was the best I ever played. It proved something not only to myself but also to everyone else in the way I won. My short game was particularly good. I was able to demoralise my opponents by not giving them anything. Even when I missed greens, I was getting up and down."

Donald is one of 25 Europeans in the field, which includes 11 British and Irish players, chasing the first prize of £885,000 from a purse of £5.4m. The world No 1 starts the defence of his title against Ernie Els. The South African sneaked into the tournament thanks to Phil Mickelson deciding to withdraw to play dad over the school holidays.

Els has drifted out to world No 68 and has lately has been looking more like the Big Queasy than the Big Easy. But Donald is well aware of Els' pedigree. He won Europe's Match Play event seven times when it was held in his back garden at Wentworth.

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