Wentworth the one to beat

 

Tiger Woods clearly warmed to the notion of instilling fear into the opposition. "I know I did it as an amateur, but whether pros would admit it or not is another matter," he said yesterday, while flashing one of those special smiles on the eve of the Cisco World Matchplay Championship here on the West Course.

The world number one, who has a bye into tomorrow's quarterfinals, will be having a further practice round today, while Darren Clarke goes into action in a first round match against Ian Woosnam. All Clarke has to do is beat Woosnam and Woods for a place in Saturday's semi-finals.

That would come as a considerable relief to Ernie Els, who is in the same half of the draw. When asked if he would relish the prospect of meeting Woods on Saturday, the three-time winner of this title replied: "No, not really." But Els quickly added: "I'm not running scared or anything, but it would be an awfully tough match to win."

For the moment, the Irishman is more concerned about the course. "It's very tough," he said. "I reckon we'll be hitting about two clubs more than we were in this year's Volvo PGA."

On that basis, Woods would have needed no more than a drive and nine-iron at the 502-yard 18th last May, given that he hit a seven-iron second to 10 feet there yesterday.

"We all missed the putt," he said, referring to the scramble format of the pre-championship proam. He has been missing the odd one of late, notably in the climactic stage of the Alfred Dunhill Cup semi-final against Spain last Sunday morning. Yet he putted beautifully in three previous rounds to be 14-under-par for 54 holes at St Andrews.

It was reassuring for us mortals to recall this vulnerability with the blade, given Woods' other talents. Clearly suffering from a head-cold yesterday, he made light of it by recalling the final round of 66 he shot to win the Disney tournament two years ago, while running a temperature of 102.

Not withstanding that heroic effort, I wondered if it were realistic of him to expect victory here at the first attempt on such tricky terrain. "Sure I think I can win," said the 11 to 4 favourite. "But the course certainly requires a lot of knowledge, particularly the greens where putts frequently break the opposite way to what you expect."

He went on: "I like matchplay because of the chance it gives you to go head-to-head with your opponent. You don't often get that chance in stroke-play, but whether I'm the world's number one at it is another matter. I'd put myself up there with Ernie (Els) and Vijay (Singh, the holder). Six USGA titles is not too bad."

The course, which has been beautifully presented for the tournament, is still unusually wet, even for this time of year. And Woods seems to like it that way. As a former student at Stanford University, he played similar terrain at the Olympic Club and the San Francisco club. "They could be damp, long and soft, just like here," he said.

His presence here is unquestionably a tremendous lift to this highly-prized, end-of-season event with its elite field of 12. "Tiger has as much or more ability than any player I've ever seen," said his friend Mark O'Meara, who is appearing for a third time.

"He has the potential to become the best player in the history of the game, though it will be terribly difficult to match the record which Jack Nicklaus established by winning 20 majors, including two US Amateurs. I certainly believe Tiger can win all four majors."

Then O'Meara added: "When he first came out on tour, he took the game by storm. There would certainly have been a fear-factor at that stage, but it's not so great any more. The guys in this field are aware of his talent and they will make him work very hard if he is to win the title."

Meanwhile, all the top players agreed with the assertion by Colin Montgomerie that it is very difficult to emerge triumphant from the first round. "Eight rounds on four days is a lot of golf on a course like this," said the 22-year-old favourite. In fact Woosnam (1990) and Singh (1997) are the only players who have succeeded in doing so in the last 10 years.

"There's no doubt it's a great help getting a bye into the quarterfinals," said Els. "I've made it to the final in each of the four years I've played - and that was always from a Friday start."

Was he pumped up by the challenge of adding another Matchplay crown to South Africa's Alfred Dunhill Cup victory of Sunday last? "My game isn't where it was last year, but I've had a good run here and I don't want to let go," he replied. "And I know I say I don't believe in records, but I'm aware that the record is five titles by Gary Player and Seve (Ballesteros). Yes, I've thought about that."

Els then outlined the sort of clubbing he will need to reach the four par fives, so providing a fascinating comparison with Woods. Fourth (501 yds): Els - driver, four-iron; Woods - driver, four-iron; 12th (510): Els - driver, three-wood; Woods - driver, two-iron; 17th (571): Els - driver, three-wood; Woods - driver, three-wood; 18th (502): Els - driver, three to five-iron; Woods - driver, seven-iron.

"There's no doubt, guys like Tiger and Vijay with their length, will find the course easier," admitted the South African. "For instance, with the new tee at the 12th back 25 yards, it is difficult for me to reach it in two."

In the top-half of the draw, I can see Steve Stricker and Montgomerie doing some damage, even to the point of getting through to the last four. And in the bottom half, Clarke faces the most experienced player in the field. Since his debut in a first round win over American journeyman Joey Sindelar in 1985, Woosnam has played 23 matches, winning 14 and losing nine.

He is now making his 12th appearance in the event, albeit is as a late replacement for Bernhard Langer. But from Clarke's standpoint, it is significant that the last time the Welshman won two matches here was in 1992, when he lost to Jeff Sluman in the semi-finals.

Woods may be favourite, but golf is never that simple. I expect Stricker to raise quite a few eyebrows while Clarke is advancing to a semi-final meeting with Lee Westwood. Who's afraid of the Tiger?