-- The title sponsor, the worldwide tours, ABC Sports and golf aficionados around the globe would dearly love to see this week's Match Play Championship come down to a 36-hole final Sunday between No. 1 seed Tiger Woods and No. 2 seed Ernie Els. If history is any indication, such a matchup will remain only a dream.
This $6 million World Golf Championship event, which begins with first-round matches Wednesday, has been a nightmare for many highly seeded players each of the previous four times it's been contested.
In 1999, for example, 18 of 32 first-round matches were won by the lower-seeded player, and that trend has continued every year since. Last year, Australian Peter O'Malley, seeded last at No. 64, beat top-seeded Woods, 2 and 1, in the first round, the greatest upset in the brief history of the tournament. In fact, the highest-seeded player ever to win the title was No. 19 Darren Clarke in 2000 with his crowd-pleasing, cigar-waving 4-and-3 triumph over Woods in the 36-hole final.
"If we were playing 36 holes, you normally would see the better player win those matches," Woods said today. "But not when you're in an 18-hole boat race. Anything can happen. Whatever it takes to advance, whether you shoot 10 over and advance or 10 under and advance . . . that's the name of the game."
More proof: Defending champion Kevin Sutherland was the No. 62 seed last year. In 2001, Steve Stricker, No. 55, prevailed. Jeff Maggert was seeded 24th when he won the inaugural event in 1999. Last year in the first round, John Cook, then No. 57, knocked out No. 2 Phil Mickelson.
"When you've traveled a long way, you've come here to play well and you play one round and that's it . . . it's not fun, no," said Mickelson, the No. 3 seed who will face Sweden's Robert Karlsson. "Those in the golf world know how difficult match play can be, and how over 18 holes, everyone is equal. Tiger has won 35 events [on the PGA Tour], but I don't know if there was any tournament [he won] where he was the low round every single day."
Stricker's victory in Melbourne, Australia, might have been the most remarkable of all. Though he was ranked 90th in the world and initially did not qualify, when a number of top 64 players pulled out rather than make the long journey to play, he got in. He prepared by playing a mini-tour event in Florida the week before with his brother-in-law (they didn't make a nickel), then flew to Australia, where he won six matches and $1 million.
"It's a very short form, 18 holes," said Irishman Padraig Harrington, No. 8 this year and playing No. 57 Cook. "Everybody in the top 64 here can play golf, or play to a high standard.
"When you go into an 18-hole match, especially if you're the lower seed, you feel like you've got nothing to lose. You're going for your shots, you're not worried about the consequences, and that's why it turns up upsets. If anything, maybe the top seed is probably playing a little more cautious than he would. And the underdog is playing a little more aggressive. So it's classic match play."
The conditions will be less than classic. A reconfigured 7,278-yard La Costa course -- the front and back nines essentially have been reversed from a year ago -- was pounded by a series of rainstorms whipping in off the nearby Pacific coast today. By mid-afternoon, several small ponds appeared on a water-logged course that were not there the day before. Rules officials are likely to allow players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the soggy fairways, at least on Wednesday.
Woods and Els have drawn first-round opponents who fit the upset special mold. Woods will play Swedish-born and North Carolina State-schooled Carl Pettersson, who finished second to him at the Buick Invitational two weeks ago by four shots. Pettersson, who went through Qualifying School to get his PGA Tour card, got into the field Sunday when Vijay Singh withdrew because of a rib injury, but he also is skilled enough to have held a share of the first-round lead in the British Open last July.
Els is the game's hottest player, with four victories in his five starts worldwide this year, including twice in Hawaii at the start of the PGA Tour season. He'll play the No. 63 seed, New Zealander Phil Tataurangi, who had his first career victory last year in Las Vegas. Tataurangi and Pettersson tied for 37th Sunday at the Nissan Open in Los Angeles, and Tataurangi got in when Nick Faldo had to withdraw because of the flu.
Woods said he honestly does not believe he and Els will play Sunday, though he fully understands why the possibility of that prospect in their first appearance in the same event this season seems so tantalizing.
"It's not real likely, because of match play," Woods said. "We both have to win five matches to see each other. . . . How many times have you seen the U.S. Amateur where the number one and number two seeds get to the final? I've never seen that happen. I understand [the build-up], but it's more viable in a stroke-play event."