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WGC Match Play Brackets Favor Kaymer

In the mid-1970s, Johnny Miller owned the Tucson Open, winning it three times in a row (1974-76) while earning the nickname “the Desert Fox.’’ Now, some 30 years later, there is a new Johnny Miller in control of the Old Pueblo’s PGA Tour event – the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

“Actually, I don’t go by Johnny. It’s John ‘E.’ Miller,’’ said this year’s tournament chairman for the host Conquistadores. “My middle initial really is ‘E,’ and I really did once upon a time meet Johnny Miller. It was kind of a funny deal, us both being Johnny Miller.‘’

Miller, the tournament chairman, grew up in Scottsdale and actually worked as a volunteer for the Phoenix Open, back in the days when Miller was dominating that tournament (1974-75), too. “I was a ‘runner’ – a kid who did whatever needed to be done – for the Thunderbirds,’’ recalled the good-natured Miller. “I was in the players’ lounge at the Phoenix Open and Johnny Miller just happened to walk in.

“I was watching him pretty closely, so he introduced himself. I still remember it like yesterday: He said, ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Miller.’ And I said, ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Miller, too.’ ’’

Both Millers will be at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Dove Mountain this week for the Match Play, which tees off Wednesday with 63 of the top 64 players on the planet (No. 64 Toru Taniguchi withdrew and was replaced by No. 65 Henrik Stenson). England’s Lee Westwood is the No. 1 seed, the fifth different No. 1 seed in the Match Play’s 13-year history.

Even the format has been tweaked to add more excitement to the weekend, Miller pointed out. The quarterfinals will be held Saturday afternoon, which pushes the semifinals to Sunday morning with the 18-hole championship and consolation matches to be contested Sunday afternoon. In the past, the championship match had been 36 holes.

“I love the Phoenix Open but my allegiance, obviously, is with our tournament here in Tucson these days, and it’s a great one,’’ said Miller, who graduated from the University of Arizona 20 years ago and never returned to the Valley of the Sun.

“It’s like an all-star game from every professional golf tour in the world. As most who follow the game will tell you, it doesn’t get any better than this.’’

Miller said the “early vibe has been a lot more exciting than the first four years we hosted the tournament. Last year we didn’t have Phil and Tiger, but it was the economy that really kind of tanked us. This year, the corporate sales are way up and we are darn near sold out.’’

According to Miller, it’s been a tough year on other fronts, with the recent shooting tragedy leaving Tucson in a stunned state of disbelief. He was unsure whether or not there would be some type of tribute to the six victims during the event.

“If we do something it will probably be something that is very Tucson, because we tend to be a very tight group,’’ he said. “The bottom line is, we’re very supportive of each other; we always have been and most people know that.

“This really is a wonderful community, very different than what happened here. And, overall, people love the tournament and know where the charitable dollars go – right here in this community – so they will rally behind it.’’

Besides the corporate uptick, Miller said the players are starting to embrace the event since its move from LaCosta in 2007.

“The (nearby) Marana airstrip has been expanded to handle the players’ private jets, and it’s less than 30 minutes from the course,’’ he pointed out. “Plus, the Ritz-Carlton and the relaxing atmosphere up here in Dove Mountain is special, and they love staying up here during the week.’’

There are 27holes of golf at the Ritz-Carlton with the Saguaro Nine being the front side and the Tortalita Nine serving as the back side of the championship course. At over 7,800 yards the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout has the ability to be a brute although the tournament has yet to be played from the tips in the two years its been played at The Ritz.

The real brute is the greens, which Nicklaus toned down after the first year the tournament. Ricky Fowler, the PGA Tour player of the year playing in his first Match Play, was the Conquistadores’ featured guest for a recent media day when defending champ Ian Poulter was unavailable.

“Ricky got to play the course a couple of times while he was here and he definitely figured it out quickly,’’ Miller reported. “He said there are certain areas of the green that you have to play to regardless where the pin is positioned.’’

With greens that are superfast and running at about 13 on the Stimpmeter, just reaching the putting surface won’t guarantee a par or birdie, as the entire course is built on a 45-degree slope with about 300 feet of elevation from top to bottom.

Such an extreme terrain has had its critics, but Miller said the overall input from the sponsor, Accenture, has been positive. “Overall, I think they’re generally happy. At the same time, I know there have been some rumblings,’’ Miller said about rumors that the Tour and sponsor had been discussing a move. “But with our weather and this great golf course and hotel, we’re proud of how it’s been going lately.’’

The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain certainly is scenic, with literally a forest of saguaros defining the course as well as mountain backdrops in every direction. And just for a little added touch of Mother Nature, a herd of wild burros is sometimes seen roaming along the outskirts, a tall metal fence along the course’s northern border keeping the small, fuzzy beasts from doing any damage.

Miller said the Conquistadores have even borrowed a little bit of the Phoenix Open – a corporate tent city — to create added excitement.

“The Walter Hagen Club (13th hole) is always jammin’ and the Canyon Club (Nos. 15 and 16) is our answer to the Thunderbirds’ version of the Greenskeeper,’’ Miller said. “Plus, we’ve got a great venue in the Oasis Club (Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 7), which is always a great place of interest.’’

Miller even has insider info for those visiting from the Valley: “This is my tip for people who are coming down from Phoenix: Wednesday is the best day of golf for the week, as the 64 best players in the world will all be on display in 32 matches that will be filled with exciting shots and twists of fate.’’

Oh, yes, and there was one more idea the Conquistadores borrowed from the Birds. “For the first time since the Match Play came here, we’re going to have a 19th hole called the “After Party,’’ Miller said of an old Bashas store that has been converted to party central at the entrance of Dove Mountain Parkway.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a blast. In fact, we’ve even brought back Duck Soup.’’

AND THE WINNER IS . . . KAYMER

Brackets were unveiled Sunday for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, with Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Martin Kaymer grabbing the top seeds in the Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Sam Snead brackets, respectively. The biggest deal there was that even though Westwood is the No. 1 overall seed, he didn’t necessarily get a break with the bracket or his first-round opponent.

Westwood’s luck took a twist when Japan’s Toru Taniguchi, originally his first-round opponent, withdrew with an injury and was replaced by Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. Yes, the same big Swede who won this tournament when it was played at the nearby Gallery in 2007.

The rest of Jones bracket doesn’t exactly favor Westwood, either. It is solid from No. 2 seed Steve Stricker all the way through No. 15 seed Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old Italian who is one of three teen-agers in the field along with Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa (19) and Seung-yul Noh (19).

Mickelson also has a tough road to hoe in the Hogan bracket, with possible early-round potholes like defending champ Ian Poulter; 2010 rookie of the year Rickie Fowler; Graeme McDowell, the U.S. Open champ who arguably was the player of the year last season; and Alvaro Quiros, who recently knocked off Westwood and a star-studded marquee in Dubai.

The same could be said of Woods, the big gun in the Snead bracket who has the unenviable task of taking on Thomas Bjorn, a recent winner in Qatar, in the first round. There are other great risks for the three-time Match Play champ, like two-winner Geoff Ogilvy; big-hitting Dustin Johnson, who seems tailor-made for the Ritz; another bomber in Bubba Watson; and the only double winner in 2011, Mark Wilson. And that’s just the TOP HALF of the bracket!

Which means your winner, at least among the favored top seeds, might very well be Martin Kaymer, the Paradise Valley resident via Germany. Kaymer gets the untested Noh in the first round of the Player bracket, which also has a bunch of unheralded opponents like the Japanese tandem of Hiroyuki Fujita and Yuta Ikeda. That, and the fact that Jim Furyk, Adam Scott and Sean O’Hair have been shadows of themselves lately, bodes well for Kaymer.

If you’re looking for a long shot(s), Hunter Mahan has the kind of streaky game that match play seems to favor, and Paul Casey, the English lad who lives in Scottsdale, also seems to flourish in the mano y mano format.





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