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McIlroy and global stars arrive for Match Play with limited expectations

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MARANA, Ariz. - Rory McIlroy makes his American debut this week in the Match Play Championship. The only goal is to make sure it's not a short week.

McIlroy appears to be close to regaining the form that made him No. 1 in the world. He began his season on the European Tour with two good chances to win at Abu Dhabi and Dubai. So his expectations would seem to be high.

Just not here.

"What is a good week?" said McIlroy, the No. 4 seed in a 64-man field at Dove Mountain. "You could shoot 67 tomorrow and be going home. It's hard to know. It's hard to even put a sort of number on it. 'OK, if I get to the quarterfinals, it's a good week.' You just have to take it one match at a time.

The Accenture Match Play Championship, which starts Wednesday in the high desert north of Tucson, is the most unpredictable event in golf and probably the reason it's played so infrequently. It can be maddening for the top 64 players available from the world ranking in 18-hole matches.

Tiger Woods is the only No. 1 seed to win, and he's not at Dove Mountain this year.

Woods, Masters champion Adam Scott and British Open champion Phil Mickelson are skipping this World Golf Championship, leaving Henrik Stenson as the No. 1 seed. He opens with Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, and there's no telling what will happen.

A year ago, Luke Donald was the only player among the top four seeds who survived the first round. Donald lost in the second round.

That's one reason Scott chose not to play.

"My record speaks for itself in Arizona," Scott said at the start of the year. He only made it to the second round twice since it moved to Dove Mountain in 2007.

Mickelson's two youngest children have spring break this week (Mickelson has skipped three of the previous four years, anyway), while Woods was planning on being at Sochi for the Olympics until girlfriend Lindsey Vonn re-injured her knee. He decided to take this week off, anyway.

Not that the absence of those top players will give anyone else an advantage.

Asked about his chance, McIlroy only knew that he played Boo Weekley in the opening round. And that he and Weekley don't have a lot in common.

"I've never been hunting before in my life," McIlroy said.

Matt Kuchar is the defending champion, and he's still trying to get a copy of the draw just to marvel at how he did it. Kuchar already has the bracket from when he won the 1997 U.S. Amateur.

Kuchar was the No. 21 seed last year. So was Hunter Mahan when he won the year before. Woods is the only player from among the top eight seeds to have won the Match Play Championship over the past 10 years.

Among the most compelling matches in the first round are Ian Poulter and Rickie Fowler, with similar games and style. At least they won't have to bring ski jackets — the opening round last year was suspended by snow, and the weather is expected to be warm and sunny.

And then there's Graeme McDowell and Gary Woodland, who are no strangers. They live at Lake Nona in Florida. They even flew out on the same plane together.

"We'll have one Lake Nona player through to the second round — we know that much," said Stenson, who also was on the plane. "You're probably going to bump into one of your good friends at some stage when you're playing a tournament like this, if you're doing well. So it doesn't really matter. It's all to how you play. It's good fun no matter what. You just go out there and try to do your best. If it's your week, it's your week."

Stenson remembers winning in 2007 when he figured he was headed home on Wednesday. Zach Johnson had a birdie attempt to go 2 up with three holes to play, with Stenson in trouble. The Swede saved par, Johnson missed, Stenson birdied the next two holes and he was on his way.

"If I wouldn't have made that up-and-down and he would have made his putt on 15, I wouldn't have won that year," Stenson said. "That's how small the margins are here."

The bracket is peculiar in one respect. Half of the matches Wednesday feature players from the United States against Europe — in a Ryder Cup year, no less. Among them are Dustin Johnson vs. Peter Hanson and Jordan Spieth vs. Pablo Larrazabal, who won this year at Abu Dhabi.

Does this week identify the best player?

"There's no 'yes' and there's no 'no' to that question, really. It's a stupid question. Take it away," Stenson said with a smile.

But there's a big paycheque for the winner — $1.53 million to the winner, and even $48,000 just for showing up.

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