Woods remains first among equals despite open field

The annual stick-a-pin-in-the-pairing-sheet competition that is the Accenture World Matchplay begins at La Costa today, although any tournament with Tiger Woods as its defending champion must be at least susceptible to the cream rising to the top.

Anyone in the field of 64 - straight off the world rankings excepting those who have withdrawn - can beat anyone else over 18 holes of matchplay is the familiar cry from the professionals.

There could be no greater upset than Woods, the No 1 seed, losing to the 64th seed, Peter O'Malley, two years ago. Tiger took revenge on the field last year by winning the event for the first time and a repeat performance in claiming the $1.2 million (£635,000) first prize here would send him past $10m in prize money from the World Gold Championship events, an impressive hoard by anyone's standards despite the current weakness of the dollar.

It is the weakness of holding this style of tournament at this venue at this time of year that perhaps explains not just why Darren Clarke in 2000 is the only European to have claimed the title but why others such as Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie have such poor records here.

They are not the only ones afflicted, and while US Open champion Jim Furyk has withdrawn due to a wrist injury, Ernie Els is simply skipping the event. Instead he is at home at Wentworth - scene of his five victories in the 36-hole version of the World Matchplay - spending time with his daughter Samantha who is about to start school.

But the South African's antipathy for La Costa is well known and, like Harrington, he has only reached the second round once here. Els has earned the right to decline the invitation as he was one of the few to go to Melbourne when the event was held in Australia as a one-off in 2001. The date chosen was the first weekend of the year which could not be more early season.

But except for those who have been playing on the west coast swing of the US Tour, few have a run of tournaments under their belts, although the air miles are mounting up quickly. Harrington and Montgomerie have just been in Malaysia and next week the European Tour - including Els and Woods - is off to Dubai.

Harrington, who has played only once after a nine week winter break, did not think jetlag would be a problem until he found out he was first off today at 7.25am local time (eight hours behind GMT) against Toshi Izawa of Japan.

But he had other concerns: "I struggle here. It is early in the season and this is not one of those courses which jumps out at me that I play well on. I don't enjoy poa annua greens at this time of year so there are complications even before you play against a good player.

"I have always hoped that if I could get past a couple of rounds the confidence would come but that theory has not worked out so far. You've got to start somewhere but I like matchplay and this is a hard event to have early in the season. It would be better later in the year."

Montgomerie, who plays Nick Price, was asked if he liked the course, whether it fitted his game and whether it reminded him of any courses in Europe. "No, no and no," Monty said.

Montgomerie has dropped from 41st to 57th in the world rankings already this season and is now not currently qualified for the Players Championship, the Open, the US Open or the USPGA. "You go back to your room in the evening and think how and why," he admitted.

"But it is not to say it is not a fair reflection of how I have played. Last year was very poor. It is a situation I've got to address. Suddenly I am not in events that should be on my schedule. I need a good result in the next few weeks." He has only this week, Dubai and the Singapore Masters to get in the Players next month.

With no Europeans in the top-10 of the world rankings - which Harrington fairly reflected the fact that none were regularly challenging for majors at the moment - it is ironic that four of their leading players are all in the same quarter of the draw. Harrington, Thomas Bjorn, Fredrik Jacobson, who faces Phillip Price, and Paul Casey, who plays Shaun Micheel also have Tiger in the same quarter.

TODAY'S WORLD MATCHPLAY CHAMPIONSHIP TEE-OFF TIMES

(U.S. unless stated, start times GMT):

15:25 P Harrington (Irl) v T Izawa (Japan)
15:34 S Verplank v B Estes
15:43 J Kaye v D Waldorf
15:52 C Riley v I Poulter (GB)
16:01 D Clarke (GB) v E Romero (Arg)
16:10 J Leonard v A Cejka (Ger)
16:19 S Appleby (Aus) v J Rose (GB)
16:28 C DiMarco v M Campbell (NZ)
16:37 D Toms v N Fasth (Swe)
16:46 P Casey (GB) v S Micheel
16:55 R Goosen (SA) v J Huston
17:04 P Lonard (Aus) v R Mediate
17:13 K Perry v J Sluman
17:22 B Faxon v S Flesch
17:31 P Mickelson v L Westwood (GB)
17:40 C Howell III v Ben Curtis
17:49 T Bjorn (Den) v Scott Hoch
17:58 F Jacobson (Swe) v P Price (GB)
18:07 N Price (Zim) v C Montgomerie (GB)
18:16 K.J. Choi (SKor) v Stewart Cink
18:25 C Campbell v Tim Herron
18:34 Jay Haas v Loren Roberts
18:43 R Allenby (Aus) v B Davis (GB)
18:52 A Scott (Aus) v M A Jimenez (Sp)
19:01 T Woods v John Rollins
19:10 T Immelman (SA) v S Maruyama (Japan)
19:19 M Weir (Can) v R Beem
19:28 S Leaney (Aus) v F Funk
19:37 V Singh (Fiji) v S Katayama (Japan)
19:46 J Kelly v S Garcia (Sp)
19:55 D Love III v B Baird
20:04 B Tway v F Couples

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