Brian Keogh in Tucson
Goaded by a fan to pick up a bobcat that slinked across his path on The Gallery Golf Club’s opening hole, Jerry Kelly took a pass.
“Back in Wisconsin, we just pick up bears,” the 44-year old said with a huge grin.
We’re in the desert, but for the top ranked players in the 64-man field, it might as well be the jungle.
Kelly will go ‘mano a mano’ with Padraig Harrington today, sure in the knowledge that the first round of the WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship will throw up its usual share of upsets.
Even the Tiger himself is eyeing the desert brush nervously as he prepares to take on massive-hitting JB Holmes in one of the more intriguing 18-hole sprints among the giant cacti at Dove Mountain.
“It’s head to head. Kill or be killed,” said world number 55 Kelly, who has twice reached the quarter-finals of this event and taken the scalps of David Toms, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh along the way.
Kelly’s successes came at La Costa near San Diego, but he still fancies his chances against Harrington, who is feeling decidedly wobbly after a bout of shingles and a dose of ‘flu in recent weeks.
“Neither of us give up but he’s is the Open champion so he’s expected to win, right?” Kelly said. “I have just got to go out and play hard and I love matchplay.”
Tied for third behind Mickelson in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera last week, Harrington is ahead of schedule in terms of knocking the rust off his game but fearful that his physical frailties will catch up with him during the course of what he hopes will be a marathon week.
“It doesn’t matter who you play in this tournament, you are always going to have a tough match and Jerry is going to be a hard one,” Harrington said before heading out to take on Sweden’s Niclas Fasth in a ‘friendly’ match.
“He is tough and he is dogged and he is going to come out fighting and playing hard. Hopefully I will be prepared for that and I will be able to do the same. But I am actually very tired and run down because of the shingles more so than the cold I had last week.
“Going far this week makes it awkward. But you just have to be ready to play in your very first match or you are knocked out. If you are not 100 percent ready, you are going home early.”
In the nine-year history of the event, Woods is the only player to win as the top seed (and he has done so twice) while Kevin Sutherland emerged as the victor after starting as the 62nd seed in 2002.
First round gems don’t come much better than the clash between sixth seed Jim Furyk and 59th seed Colin Montgomerie - a pair of Ryder Cup titans that have never made it past the third round.
“If you are 60th in the world, you are bound to get somebody who is quite good,” said Montgomerie, who needs to play well over the next month to qualify for the Masters. “But I don’t think he will be too thrilled either, to be honest.
“There is no game out here that is easy. Retief (Goosen) is playing Andres Romero and Luke Donald is playing Nick Dougherty. Every game is a potential upset and there will be a number of them tomorrow.
“It is a sprint and it favours the so-called underdog. Look at Barnsley. They are not going to beat Liverpool over the season. But they can over 90 minutes. And that is what it is here. I can beat the number seven in the world over 18 holes. Over a season, Jim Furyk will probably get more world points than I will.”
Seeking his sixth tournament victory on the trot, Woods knows he is under pressure to defeat Holmes after failing to get past the third round since he racked up his second successive win in this event in 2004.
In 2006 he lost to Chad Campbell. In 2005 and last year, he fell to Australia’s Nick O’Hern.
“You can go out there and shoot six or seven under par and you are going home,” Woods said. “Other times, I remember at La Costa, one of the guys shot 80 and advanced. It’s just the way it is.
“All you have to do is beat the guy you are playing against, no matter how. You just have to step up to the plate and hit shots. You just can’t afford to slip up.”
Beating your opponent is one thing, but late entry Ernie Els has made a habit of beating himself in recent months and he’s hoping to reverse that trend and end of run of three successive first round defeats when he plays American Jonathan Byrd.
Addressing his 72nd hole implosion in the Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek the splashdown that handed Tiger Woods the Dubai Desert Classic two weeks ago, Els pointed out that he has had to overcome tougher blows, such has his battle with knee surgery in 2005.
He said: “Making an eight on the par-five and losing then again in Dubai. Two tournaments where I should probably have won. But to be honest with you, I’ve taken some big blows in the last four or five years. So it’ something I know that I can overcome.”
Having originally signalled his intention to skip this event, Els changed his mind last Thursday, explaining: “I just felt it is a big event. My record is not that great in this tournament, as we all know. But if I have a better game and get a bit lucky, you win a couple of matches and find yourself in the quarter-finals or semi-finals. That’s why I’m here.”
WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship, The Gallery Golf Club at Dove Mountain, Tucson, Arizona
Key 1st round tee times (Irish time)
14.50 Sergio Garcia (Esp) v John Senden (Aus)
15.08 Padraig Harrington (Ire) v Jerry Kelly (USA)
15.26 KJ Choi (Kor) v Camilo Villegas (Col)
15.35 Ian Poulter (Eng) v Soren Hansen (Den)
15.44 Vijay Singh (Fij) v Peter Hanson (Swe)
16.20 Jim Furyk (USA) v Colin Montgomerie (Sco)
16.38 Rory Sabbatini (RSA) v Bradley Dredge (Wal)
16.47 Paul Casey (Eng) v Robert Karlsson (Swe)
16.56 Justin Rose (Eng) v Rod Pampling (Aus)
17.14 Henrik Stenson (Swe) v Robert Allenby (Aus)
17.32 Angel Cabrera (Arg) v Anders Hansen (Den)
17.41 Luke Donald (Eng) v Nick Dougherty (Eng)
17.50 Zach Johnson (USA) v David Toms (USA)
18.08 Geoff Ogilvy (Aus) v Justin Leonard (USA)
18.17 Lee Westwood (Eng) v Brandt Snedeker (USA)
18.26 Ernie Els (RSA) v Jonathan Byrd (USA)
18.44 Steve Stricker (USA) v Daniel Chopra (Swe)
19.02 Tiger Woods (USA) v JB Holmes (USA)
19.20 Phil Mickelson (USA) v Pat Perez (USA)