CARLSBAD, Calif. - Like a lottery billboard promoting an outlandish jackpot, the Tiger Woods vs. Ernie Els drama at the Accenture Match Play Championship should come with a fine-print disclaimer.
The odds of No. 1 facing No. 2 in a head-to-head finale are about 1 in 200. All sales are final.
Woods and Els - the hottest commodities in golf - are competing in the same event on the same continent for the first time since the Tour Championship in October. The conflagration of talent has created quite the buzz at the La Costa Resort and Spa where the 64-player field will contend for a $1 million first prize.
Before anyone gets too excited there are these words of caution: Kevin Sutherland...Steve Stricker...Jeff Maggert - all past champions. The highest seed to ever win this Match Play was No. 19 Darren Clarke, who beat Woods in the 2000 final.
It's enough to make Woods and Els chuckle at the magnitude of the hype.
"We both have to win five matches in order to see each other," Woods said. "Not real likely."
The PGA Tour, in a masterful stroke of promotional savvy, was unable to locate Els for a pre-tournament interview. Practicing just outside the media center, however, Els happily spoke as he honed a game that has been dazzling since late last season.
"The probability of that happening is not too strong," Els said of a showdown with Woods this week and their anticipated rivalry. "It's the kind of thing you guys want and the fans want more than the players. A guy that wins more will be the next guy. I'm winning more. So I'm the next guy."
The Woods-Els fury is fueled by the players' individual match-play records. Woods won six straight USGA amateur match-play events and has a 3-1-1 singles record in international team play. He has eight match wins in his three previous Match Play appearances.
Els is 2-1 in Presidents Cup singles and has won four match-play titles in Wentworth, England, where a 36-hole format is used. He reached the semifinals of this event in 2001.
"I've got a pretty good match-play record but it's in 36-hole events," Els said. "In an 18-hole match play, anybody can beat anybody."
The wishful thinking, however, even has other players talking and has shifted the former Woods-Phil Mickelson rivalry to the past tense.
"It's interesting that people are considering that Tiger has a challenger," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington. "A year ago people weren't saying anything like that. So it's nice to see. Maybe Ernie is representing the rest of the professional golfers."
Unless luck prevails, the Woods-Els rivalry isn't likely to commence until next month at Bay Hill. The tension level in the Middle East has Woods and Els both leaning away from a planned appearance at next week's Dubai Desert Classic.
"I would throughly enjoy it if we both played well at the same time," said Woods.
As would we all. Just don't hold your breath this week.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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