Banana skins await in the desert

Brian Keogh in Tucson

The last time Tiger Woods lost at matchplay in Tucson, he was dusted by a Dubliner caller Maury Beasley in the 1992 AJGA Rolex Championship.

Beasley was no Irishman though. He hailed from Dublin in Georgia and has never been heard of since while Woods is no longer the skinny 16-year-old kid who turned up at the Westin La Paloma, as worried about how to make ends meet than anything else.

Today Woods faces a far more formidable competitor in big-hitting JJ Henry, one of the more impressive American rookies during the Ryder Cup at the K Club and a man more than capable of ending the world number one’s bid for an eighth successive PGA Tour victory.

Then again, with the top 64 players in the world in action on the south course at The Gallery Golf Club outside Tucson, a first round defeat is no disgrace.

Woods confessed yesterday that losing in the first round, as he did in 2002 when Australia’s Peter O’Malley beat him 2 and 1, is far less painful than going down in the decider.

The American has reached three finals in this World Golf Championships event, winning back-to-back in 2003 and 2004 before straight-hitting Aussie O'Malley caused consternation in television land with that unexpected victory.

But the matchplay defeat Woods still regards as the most frustrating of them all is that 4 and 3 loss to an inspired Darren Clarke in the 2000 final at La Costa in California.

"Losing to Darren was more frustrating than losing in the first round,” Woods said. “You play five matches, you get to the final and you know how hard it is to get to the final.

"It's one of the tougher things to do in matchplay is go win five to the get to the final and not get the job done.

"If you lose in the first round, you're out. OK, I lost in the first round. But to get all the way to the final, you work that hard and you have an opportunity. You only have to be one guy and you don't get it done."

Woods is playing down "The Streak" however, pointing out how he lost to Shaun Micheel in the first round of the HSBC Championship at Wentworth before the Ryder Cup and a long run of defeats in events outside the US since then.

He said: "It's a Tour streak. I lost at the matchplay, lost at the Ryder Cup, lost in China, lost in Japan. I've done lots of losing too."

He also lost in Dubai three weeks again and he could well lose to Henry, who only got his place in the field when South African Charl Schwartzel withdrew late last week.

Seeded to meet arch-rival Phil Mickelson in the semi-finals, Woods knows that television ratings will plummet if there is a repeat of what happened in 1999, when Jeff Maggert, Steve Pate, Andrew Magee and John Huston made it to the last four.

The Gallery Golf Club is a sprawling desert course and a nightmare for the sellout crowd of 15,000, who have no chance of flitting between matches.

Atmosphere will be severely lacking and Woods fully understands why there are only three major matchplay tournaments in the FedEx Cup age, where television is king.

“Obviously TV drives everything out here,” Woods said, adding, “if you have the right match up in the final, then I think it could be wonderful for the ratings. But if you don’t get the people who are household names in the game of golf, then the ratings won’t be all the good.”

Asked what he thought would be the ideal final from a ratings point of view, Woods beamed: “As long as I am in there, I’m happy. I don’t care just as long as it involves me.”

Interest of the European side of the Atlantic would be hugely boosted by a decent showing by the 11 members of Ian Woosnam’s Ryder Cup side.

All bar Paul McGinley are in action but of those only Clarke (twice) and Ian Poulter have reached the semi-finals since the inaugural edition in 1999.