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MARANA, Ariz. – Tiger Woods should not expect his next match to be as easy as his last one.
For starters, President Barack Obama was his partner three days ago at The Floridian, which is not to suggest the president had to carry the 14-time major champion. Secondly, Woods won't be competing against a Houston businessman (Jim Crane) and outgoing U.S. Trade Representative (Ron Kirk), but Charles Howell III, who gave Woods fits as a teenager in the 1996 U.S. Amateur.
Woods is a three-time winner of the Match Play Championship who has a 33-9 record in this tournament alone.
And even he knows it won't be easy.
"The whole idea is just to beat one guy at a time," Woods said. "That's the thing. There are times where I've played well in matches and I've lost, and other times where I've played poorly and advanced. It's pot luck in these 18-hole sprints like this. As I said, it's imperative to get off to a quick start and get up on your opponent early. It's just so hard to come back in 18-hole matches, and hopefully, I can do that conceivably for all six."
It all starts Wednesday at Dove Mountain, the first World Golf Championship of the year.
Rory McIlroy is the No. 1 seed and will play Shane Lowry, a longtime friend and former partner on the Irish team that won the European Team Championships in 2007. In a similar match, former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland) plays three-time major champion Padraig Harrington (Ireland).
The toughest challenge might be the weather, with a front expected to move across the high desert overnight and bringing temperatures so low that light snow is possible. At best, it figures to be frigid for the morning matches as the sun is beginning to climb over The Ritz-Carlton Club at Dove Mountain.
"No one likes to play in adverse weather," said Ian Poulter, playing for first time since Hawaii, when the tournament took four days to start because of 40 mph wind.
Woods said he would be used to the wind and cold because that's what he dealt with in Florida with the president.
It was the second time Woods has played with a sitting U.S. president — he once played with former President Bill Clinton at The Alotian Club in Arkansas.
"Playing with Mr. President was pretty cool," he said. "He's just a wonderful person to be around."
Woods doesn't use "Mr." with hardly anyone. In fact, he has a nickname for most people in golf. He'll shorten the surname ("Poults" for Poulter, "Stricks" for Steve Stricker) or simply add a "y'' to their name ("Rosey" for Justin Rose). And what name did he use for the leader of the free world?
"Partner," Woods said with a smile.
He sounded surprised to learn that Obama played left-handed, and when asked to describe the president's best shot, Woods said that "he hit a few."
"He's a pretty good athlete, and we all know he played a lot of hoops," Woods said. "He's a lefty, but to see him out there hitting shots ... he hit it well, and we didn't play under the easiest conditions. It was blowing harder than this, and it was a little bit cooler than this. So we played under some tough conditions, and as I said, he hit the ball well. He's got amazing touch. He can certainly chip and putt."
That's the key for anyone in match play.
Luke Donald has one of the best short games in golf, which explains why he won two years ago in the most dominant performance in the 14-year history of this event. Donald is the only player to have never reached the 18th hole in any of his matches.
As for the fickle nature of match play?
Donald didn't even make it out of the first round last year against Ernie Els.
Woods is coming off a four-shot win at Torrey Pines three weeks ago, after opening his 2013 season by missing the cut in Abu Dhabi.
He took an entire week off from golf, and then resumed practicing to get ready for a busy part of his schedule leading up to the Masters. This is the first of three straight tournaments for Woods, a stretch in which he would have a mathematical chance of going back to No. 1.
All 64 players in the field are so close in ability that there is no such thing as an upset in this event, not like a Grand Slam tennis event or the NCAA basketball tournament.
Howell is the No. 63 seed, though his stock has been improving. He began the year with three straight finishes in the top 10, which enabled him to go from outside the top 100 in the world and qualify for this elite tournament.
Woods and Howell were partners at the Presidents Cup for all four matches in 2003, and Woods used to practice with him when he lived in Orlando, Fla. They first squared off in the quarterfinals of the 1996 U.S. Amateur, which Woods won on his way to a record third straight title. Howell has made a lasting impression over the years.
"You'd see him out there on the range and the putting green just grinding away," Woods said. "His work ethic has never changed, never waned. He's out there working all the time. He's trying to get better. I admire guys who put in that kind of work. It's not easy to do, and he's implemented some swing changes over the years, but his tireless work ethic is something we all look up to."
No one has played fewer rounds this year than McIlroy and McDowell.
Wednesday will be only the third competitive round in three months for McIlroy, who missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and has not played since then. McDowell returned from his long winter break last week at Riviera and missed the cut by one shot.
"I don't feel like I'm a guy that needs to play his way into form," McIlroy said. "I think I just practice, and if I feel like I'm confident on the range and hitting it well and playing well in practice rounds, then that'll translate into shooting good scores on the course."
Scores aren't necessarily important at Dove Mountain. This week is only about having a better score than the opponent.