MARANA, Arizona, February 22 – Three-time winner Tiger Woods clearly lacks the mystique he once enjoyed at the World Golf Championships Match-Play Championship, which starts on Wednesday with 64 of the world’s top players.
Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, will try to win his first US PGA event since September of 2009 at the $8.5 million tournament at Dove Mountain.
World No. 20 Woods will face Spain’s 48th-ranked Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano in one of 32 first-round matches.
“I think he’s beatable,” the Spaniard said of Woods. “Of course I need to play good. If I play well I can beat him. He’s probably not at his best. Maybe I can beat him. That would be a great feeling.
“I think Tiger will win majors again. I don’t know if he will get past Nicklaus’s record. What I’m sure about is he’s not going to be as dominant as what he used to be.”
Woods deadpanned his reply to the challenge, saying on Tuesday, “I feel exactly the same way as he does. I feel he’s beatable, too.”
Fernandez-Castano, a five-time winner on the European Tour, could meet the fate of Canada’s Stephen Ames, who in 2006 commented on erratic tee shots by Woods and then lost to him 9 and 8, the most lopsided match in event history.
But Woods said that he uses comments as inspirational fuel less these days than he did in the past.
“It used to (inspire me) quite a bit when I was younger. But as I’ve matured and gone beyond that,” Woods said. “It’s their own opinion. Everyone has a hole and it’s just like that.
“What matters is how I go out and play and how I’m progressing in my game. At the end of the day when I’m retired, I think I will have mastered a pretty good record.”
Woods, who won a non-tour charity event last December to end a win drought of more than two years, says he has the same confidence and fearlessness in his game as in his glory days, proclaiming, “Every putt can be buried.”
But putting has been a struggle at times this year for Woods, 36, in sharing third at Abu Dhabi and 15th at Pebble Beach and he knows birdies are vital in the match-play format.
“I only putted really poorly in probably two of my rounds this year, so it’s not too bad,” Woods said.
“It is a sprint. You have to get off to quick starts. If you get down two or three holes it’s very hard to come back. It puts a premium on getting quick starts. You have to go out and make birdies.”
Woods won the Match-Play crown in 2003, 2004 and 2008. His only finals loss came in 2000 to Northern Ireland’s British Open champion Darren Clarke, a possible second-round foe. Woods could face World No. 3 Lee Westwood of England in the third round.
“It doesn’t matter if you are (seeded) 16 or 5, if you’re in, you’re in,” Woods said. “Anybody can beat anybody at this level. That’s what makes it so interesting.”
World No. 1 Luke Donald of England opens against South African Ernie Els in a top first-round showdown.
“You’ve just got to try and get through,” Els said. “He’s in great form. He had an unbelievable year last year. So he has got a lot going for him. But it is 18 holes. It’s not like I’m the worst match player in the world either.
“It’s basically who can make the most putts and make the most birdies.”
No. 2 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland opens against South Africa’s George Coetzee while Westwood opens against Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts and Germany’s World No. 4 Martin Kaymer opens against Australian Greg Chalmers.
But the lurker in the draw most fans have their eye upon is Woods.
“Tiger is coming back nicely,” Els said. “It seems like he’s getting in control of his swing and his ball flight. He’s always a danger. Even if he’s not as hot as he was a couple of years ago, he could turn it on at any time.”
Even Fernandez-Castano realizes that potential, despite his remarks about Woods having lost his dominance.
“Anything is possible with that guy. You never know,” the Spaniard said. “Having said this, he will probably win four majors this year.”