Spain draws hot competition

Elite crowd chases £3m prize as World Match Play finds life after Wentworth
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The Independent Online

Tour players display sympathy for the back-breaking toil of their caddies about as often as Sir Alex Ferguson talks to Match of the Day. But their bagmen will need to be treated with a little more TLC this week as the course for the Volvo World Match Play in Spain seems to have been quarried out of a roller-coaster landscape in the foothills of an Andalucian mountain range.

The Finca Cortesin course, near Malaga and just along the coast road from Gibraltar, is so lung-bustingly hilly that buggies were allowed during the practice rounds. But the walking starts today, and the poor caddies charged with lugging 50lb tour bags up and down its 7,380 yards for sometimes 36 holes a day are going to need more than just an injection of sympathy for their aching feet and backs – they've already dubbed the course Finca Cortisone.

This is the 45th Match Play Championship and the first to leave its ancestral home at Wentworth. Its distinguished champions since Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event in 1964 include Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros (five wins apiece), Greg Norman, Ernie Els (with a record seven), Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo and current Ryder Cup captains Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin. So how did the championship move house from Surrey to Spain? Well, Wentworth has been under the knife since May as all its greens have been dug up for the PGA Championship next May. So the Match Play became homeless and sponsor-less. At the same time, the Race to Dubai finale to determine Europe's No 1 for the season killed off the old European Order of Merit climax at the Volvo Masters at Valderrama. Volvo simply stepped in to adopt the Match Play.

So, new year, new venue, new sponsor, new format. Sixteen players have jetted in through a qualification process that frankly requires an advanced degree in algorithm calculus to decipher – plus a commitment from the players. Which explains why the top-ranked available American is Anthony Kim, ranked No 23 in the world. He might have been eighth choice but the championship can still count itself lucky to have acquired the services of the feisty 24-year-old along with four of the world's top 10 and eight of the top 20, including Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson and Camilo Villegas.

And the players had better remember to bring their wheelbarrows. In a total purse of €3.25m (£2.9m), they'll be chasing a first prize of €750,000 (£672,000) and even the fourth and last placed players in the group stage will head home €120,000 (£108,000) richer.

And if that's not quite enough cash to help the poor souls survive the cold winter months, the top four ranked players in the Race to Dubai are here with one eye on grabbing the $1.5m (£913,000) bonus awarded to Europe's No 1 next month. Casey, returning to action after three months nursing injured ribs, says he is "champing at the bit".

"The new format means you have to keep grinding to the end even though your match might be over," he said. "It's going to be a new experience." Casey has not been hitting his clubs full on and said that there was no way he would know whether he was truly ready to return until he got out there. "But one sharp pain and I'll be out of here," he said.

Casey has been slapping ice packs against his ribs after practice rounds and plays twice today, first against Australian Scott Strange and then in one of the day's stellar match-ups against the fiery Kim, who has a habit of upsetting his opponents.

McIlroy and Angel Cabrera will attract a sizeable crowd, too. Both are graduates from the refreshing school of hit it, go find it, hit it again. They have been drawn together in the group of death along with Stenson and Simon Dyson. "It will be really tough to get through," McIlroy said. "Especially against Henrik, the Players Championship winner, Angel, who won the Masters, and Simon, who is in the form of his life after winning the Dunhill Links Championship."

The four players racing to Dubai have been kept apart in the draw but they could be heading for a collision in Saturday's semi-finals.

Four to watch: Hotshots in Malaga this week

Rory McIlroy Won four out of five at the Vivendi Trophy to help GB&I defeat Continental Europe. Made quarter-finals of the WGC Match Play in Tucson, Arizona in February. Says course reminds him of Tucson.

Lee Westwood Leading European Tour's Race to Dubai. Won Portugal Masters two weeks ago. In four appearances in this championship, he has nine wins and three losses. Beat Colin Montgomerie in final in 2000.

Sergio Garcia Can draw on home support in a format that suits his character and game. Has three wins and three losses in three appearances including defeat by Ernie Els in the 2002 final. Prefers match play.

Jeev Milkah Singh Has a point to prove to Greg Norman, who snubbed him as a wild-card pick at the recent Presidents Cup in favour of Adam Scott. Singh is a fighter and the first Indian to play in the championship.

The match play format

There will be a Champions-League style format over the first two days with players split into four groups of four and playing round-robin matches. All matches will continue to the 18th green so, even when a match is complete, a player can still win holes and improve their hole difference which, like goal difference, will decide who advances if there is a tie with points won. The top four will battle over 36 holes in the semi-finals and final over the weekend.