Els has the world all to himself


Instead of the bringing together the best in the world, the field for the Match Play Championship in Australia looks more like the rest of the world. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Davis Love III and defending champion Darren Clarke were among 38 top players who shunned a trip around the world during the holidays, leaving the weakest field of any World Golf Championships since it began two years ago. The US$5 million tournament was designed for the top 64 in the world ranking, but only four of the top 10 are playing. Ernie Els, No. 2 in the world, will be the top seed when play begins Jan. 3 at Metropolitan Golf Club in Melbourne. His first-round opponent will be Kevin Sutherland, who has never won on the Professional Golfers Association Tour or even finished in the top 50 on the money list. Sutherland is ranked No. 102, showing how low the tour had to go to fill the field. Hal Sutton (No. 8), Masters champion Vijay Singh (No. 9) and Tom Lehman (No. 10) will be top seeds in their brackets. Woods has said since July that he would not be playing, and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem admitted it was a mistake to move Match Play to Australia during the holiday season. Among reasons cited by Woods and others are the distance to Australia, having to leave so soon after Christmas and the fickleness of match play. Imagine flying 20 hours to Australia and getting eliminated after one match. “If it was a stroke-play event, I’d probably go,” Woods said earlier this month. “But it’s match play. You get down there and you’ve got to leave probably on the 29th or the 30th, and that’s my birthday (Dec. 30), and I don’t want to be doing that. It’s just not my thing. “And the fact that you can go all the way down there and play one round and you’re out, that’s not really inviting. So, they’re always going to miss a few players.” But this many? Imagine a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament bracket without Michigan State, Stanford and Duke. When the Match Play Championship was played the first two years in late February at La Costa Resort just north of San Diego, Jumbo Ozaki of Japan was the only eligible player who chose not to play. This time, the dropouts includes a long list of game’s best players. And it’s not just the Americans. None of Europe’s best players will be in Australia — Clarke, Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie, Jesper Parnevik, Sergio Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal and Thomas Bjorn. Clarke defeated Woods in the final this year and had planned to defend his title, but backed out Friday and also said he would skip the Mercedes the following week in Hawaii. “It’s a major disappointment as I was really looking forward to defending my title, but in the circumstances I need to be with my family,” Clarke said. Others who decided to skip are Greg Norman, Nick Price, Mike Weir, Fred Couples, Paul Azinger and Jeff Maggert, who won the inaugural Match Play Championship in 1999. Those who play will have a chance to win US$1 million — more if the purse is raised from US$5 million. And even more is at stake for the 13 Europeans in the field, since a victory would all but guarantee a spot on the Ryder Cup team.