When the casual observer first glances at the bracket sheet of 64 names for the WGC-Accenture Match Play, the eyes immediately scan for Tiger Woods -- the game's global force. After falling all the way to a No. 5 seed last year, Woods can be found back on the one line and looming over the Gary Player Bracket.
Tiger enters the week as the No. 2 player in the world, a No. 1 seed seemingly locked up before the 2013 season even started. But he now enters this WGC event a perfect one-for-one on the PGA Tour this year after a dominating run-away win at Torrey Pines last month. Tiger has won this event three times, but has either been unable to play or not advanced very far since his last win in 2008. In the match play format, a bit of the intimidation that clinched Woods victories on the first tee a decade ago is now gone, but the win at Torrey certainly has the field on notice.
Woods will undoubtedly be the favorite in the Player Bracket (and the overall bracket), but there are definitely some world-class players who can challenge him before the weekend at Dove Mountain. Here's what Woods is facing in his portion, with some predictions for this quadrant following:
Player Bracket -- Best 1st Round Match
No. 6 Hunter Mahan vs. No. 11 Matteo Manassero (11:35 a.m. ET Weds.) -- Manassero is still a teenager (turning 20 in April) yet amazingly this is his fourth appearance at the WGC-Match Play event. He's been considered the next big thing in European golf for almost five years now, picking up a Euro Tour win in each of the last three years. The novelty of the adolescent Italian hanging with the best in the world has worn off, but he's as steady as ever and capable of making a deep run.
Unfortunately for Manassero, he runs into Hunter Mahan in the opening round. Mahan is coming off a solid Sunday at Riviera, and is the defending champion at this event. Aside from Tiger's debut, this is the most compelling matchup of this bracket on the first day.
Player Bracket Underdog -- Richard Sterne
With nearly all of the top 64 players in the world in attendance, it's hard to say anyone is an underdog but I'll define that as a No. 9 seed or higher for this exercise. Sterne enters the week in form, playing extremely well on the Euro Tour and earning a bid into the bracket over the past month. His two-week stretch at Dubai and the Joburg Open was as good a string as you'll see all season, as he made just one bogey all week to easily win the Joburg. That streak makes Sterne dangerous to pull off a couple upsets and play late into the week.
Player Bracket Darkhorse -- Mahan
Again, it's pretty hard to call the defending champion a darkhorse, but I'm defining that here as a five seed or higher. Mahan has been on the first page of the leaderboard throughout the first month of the season, and I imagine he'll be the top competition for Tiger in this quadrant.
1st Round Player Bracket Predictions
Woods def. Howell III
Molinari def. Fernandez-Castano
Simpson def. Lynn
Bjorn def. Hanson
Westwood def. Cabrera-Bello
Kaymer def. Coetzee
Sterne def. Dufner
Mahan def. Manassero
2nd Round Player Bracket Predictions
Woods def. Molinari
Simpson def. Bjorn
Westwood def. Kaymer
Mahan def. Sterne
3rd Round Player Bracket Predictions
Woods def. Simpson
Mahan def. Westwood
Player Bracket Winner
Tiger Woods def. Hunter Mahan
Overall Bracket Final 4
Tiger Woods (Gary Player Bracket)
Charl Schwartzel (Bobby Jones Bracket)
Justin Rose (Ben Hogan Bracket)
Ian Poulter (Sam Snead Bracket)
2013 WGC Match Play winner
Justin Rose -- The Englishman continued his impressive play this season with two strong showings in the Middle East to start 2013. Rose picked up his fourth career PGA Tour win at a WGC event last year, and I think he'll be the toughest out in the bracket this year. It's hard to compare the Ryder Cup stakes to the match play format of this event, but Rose has repeatedly proven he can win any game against any opponent. He's a trendy pick to win his first career major this year, and I think that potentially big season starts with a win in Arizona on Sunday.