Brian Keogh in Tucson
Blood in the sand. Carnage amongst the cacti. Call it what you will, but the first round draw for tomorrow’s WGC - Accenture World Match Play Championship at The Gallery in Arizona contains enough explosive material to match combined sartorial sparkle of Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia.
The Ryder Cup blood brothers will face each down in the Sonoma Desert outside Tucson, in one of the most eagerly awaited duels of an event that produces ‘shocks’ with monotonous regularity.
Dressed from head-to-toe in bright orange, 2000 champion Clarke did not linger to answer questions about a match that could see him eliminated from the event at the first hurdle for the third year in succession.
But as Clarke stomped off into the desert to familiarise himself with a bone-dry course that offers a stark contrast to the slosh-fest that was La Costa, fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington was bracing himself for an equally taxing first round clash with another Ryder Cup team mate, Lee Westwood.
“It is a tough opening round without a doubt, given his matchplay record,” Harrington confessed, reflecting on Westwood’s tally of just eight defeats from 25 Ryder Cup encounters. It is a different atmosphere to the Ryder Cup but he is obviously very good at matchplay and he’ll be difficult.
“Whether I got him or Zach Johnson it was going to be difficult. But all opening rounds are tough and we will just have to give it our best. You can’t expect to get any easy ones.”
Harrington twice reached the quarter-finals when the event was played at La Costa in California, losing to Tiger Woods in 2004 and to Davis Love last season.
But he is still happy with the move to the Gallery’s south course at Dove Mountain, where birdies galore are expected on a track described as a long-hitters paradise.
“I didn’t like La Costa, even though I performed well on it,” Harrington said before his first practice round. “This is a totally different venue though I don’t really know much about it. I saw a little bit on The Golf Channel and it is a long-hitters golf course so we will wait and see how that goes. But I like the look of courses in the desert, so that is a good sign.”
Harrington regularly ‘tips’ himself to do well on his third week away from home and while his seventh place finish in Sunday’s Nissan Open at Riviera looks like a poor return for a player who tore the field apart with an opening 63, he is quietly confident that his game is in good shape.
A closing two over par 73 would not appear to be the stuff of confidence but as always, Harrington was looking at the bigger picture rather than the fact that he finished six shots outside the play-off for the title between eventual victor Charles Howell and Phil Mickelson.
“I didn’t play too badly but the wind was gusting a little bit and a few times I pitched at the flag and went over the green and a few times I came up short,” he explained. “It was just the nature of the day. A few bad breaks.
“I am very happy, definitely happy. These are very much warm up events in the schedule and there were a lot of good positive things to take from the week. Just being in contention was a plus - it is always good to be up there in contention.
“It is very early season and I am rusty. It would be a lot easier if I was in the middle of the field and I wouldn't be quite in the spotlight. But I'll take my chances any time I am up there in contention so I am happier about that.
“Life is easier at the start of the season when you are not in the spotlight. I just wasn't ready for it at this stage of the year - it's that simple. I am still very rusty, still not quite there and bedding in a few things. But I will get there so I am happy about that.
“Matchplay makes it harder in this situation. You can play well and still go out in the first round. Let's just wait and see how it goes.”
World number one Woods will go into the event with the favourite’s tag yet again and while he has captured the title twice from seven starts, he will be wary of his first round rival JJ Henry, one of his Ryder Cup team mates last September.
Seeds have a habit of falling by the wayside in the most unpredictable of all formats and Woods will remember his defeats to Peter O’Malley in the first round in 2002 and to Nick O’Hern in round two in 2005, a loss that ended a run of 13 consecutive victories that brought him back-to-back wins in this event.