The good and the great of the professional golfing world converge on La Costa Resort and Spa, Carlsbad, California, this week for the eagerly awaited launch of the World Golf Championships.
It is an assembly of talent never before seen for a head-to-head contest when the top 64 on the Official World Rankings compete in the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship.
A total of eleven Europeans and, in all,14 European Tour Members will be involved in the battle for the 859,158 euro first prize and the honour of becoming the first winner of a World Championship event.
The field in California is a ‘Who’s Who’ of golf - multiple major championship winners, title winners from five continents, Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup stars - all boasting the necessary pedigrees to merit involvement in the prestigious tournament.
The draw, though still to be confirmed at the time of going to print, throws up numerous potentially exciting ties, none more so that the collision between World No.1 Tiger Woods and six-time major champion Nick Faldo.
Equally enthralling is the showdown between two golfing heavyweights, Europe’s No.1, Colin Montgomerie, and former Masters champion, Craig Stadler, of the United States.
Montgomerie’s name was the last to be added to the Andersen Consulting trophy in its former guise as a limited-field match play tournament when he beat Davis Love III in the final. Now, instead of a select few, the leading 64 in the world can compete for the title.
The big Scot is a huge fan of the new, enlarged, improved format and looked forward with anticipation to the five-day feast in the San Diego sunshine.
He said: “Although I’m the defending champion of the event, it is different from what it was when I won. At the same time, it’s nice to be defending and I think there is excitement regarding the World Golf Championship events.
“It’s important to put into perspective that they are not major championships. The majors stand on their own two feet, but there’s plenty of space in the calendar for the world’s top golfers to get together more often.
“I think this is the start of something, as I’ve said many times before, like the ATP Tennis Tour, where the world ranking will become ever more appropriate. This is why people are trying to get into the top 64 because obviously that’s where they want to be.”
Montgomerie has played La Costa on several occasions due to his affiliation to the Callaway Company, based at Carlsbad, but he insisted: “I think the Europeans will be slight underdogs because not many will have played the course.
“However I’ve played it a number of times testing equipment and I know the place quite well. I think the course should suit the Europeans but at the same time course knowledge is very handy, as it was for us in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama.”
He added: “Golf is in a bit of a boom and it’s super that we can play these world events. I think you’ll find that because of the nature of golf and 18-hole competition there will be a lot of surprises on the first day.
“It will be interesting for everybody. I think there will be a lot of shocks - at least half the results will see the lower ranked player beating the higher ranked player. It’s like playing tennis over one set and should be very interesting.”
The showdown between Woods and three-time Masters and Open champion Faldo promises to be the opening day’s big draw. As a former winner of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth and Ryder Cup record-breaker, Faldo knows what it takes to win in head-to-head combat.
Like Montgomerie, he believes that over 18 holes, anything is possible. He said: “When you get two good professionals playing well on the day, anything is possible. That’s why 36 holes is always a great test because of the stamina factor, everything. I feel 36 holes is a great test but 18 - well, you just go out and hope you shoot a good score. As simple as that. But you can shoot a good score and lose.
“That’s the problem and the beauty of 18-hole match play. Over the course at La Costa you could go out and shoot 66 and not win. This Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship is a big event - triple the size of most of our events.
“It’s counting for Ryder Cup points - and I want Ryder Cup points. If you have a good week you could bite off a big chunk in terms of making the team. If you win you’re in the team - simple as that.”
Italian Open champion Patrik Sjöland, due to meet American Ryder Cup player, Jim Furyk, is certain that Faldo can never be discounted when the chips are down.
Sjöland said: “I think that there will be a few surprises. Guys like Tiger Woods or David Duval are expected to win and that’s not easy. Faldo could be dangerous in match play.
“I don’t think Tiger will like having to face him in the first round. If only Nick could hole a few more putts his game would be back. I played with him in South Africa last month. In the first round he hit a few wayward shots but in the second he played really nicely without holing anything. His game is better than his scoring suggests.”
European Golfer of the Year, Lee Westwood, is scheduled to face Argentinian Eduardo Romero in a clash between two of the European Tour’s more established players while his friend, Darren Clarke, has Andrew Magee as his designated first round opponent.
José Maria Olazábal, down to face Billy Mayfair, loves the prospect of a new and exciting tournament which escapes from the normal stroke play format.
The 1994 Masters champion commented: “I think we don’t play enough match play and I feel we are losing touch with that sort of event. Years ago it was very popular and we lost that. I would like to play two or three tournaments a year with that format.”