McDowell, McIlroy to go all the way to the top at Dove Mountain
Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy could fight their way into a thrilling all-Ulster final in the Accenture Match Play next Sunday. On the eve of the first World Golf Championship of 2011, we rate the prospects of Ireland's three Accenture Match Play hopefuls.
Returns this week from a month-long break as world No 4. The Portrush powerhouse regains his highest-ever ranking as Phil Mickelson once again falls behind him on the global ladder.
This gives fair measure of US Open champion McDowell's new status. G-Mac has made it through the first round only once in four appearances at the Accenture (beating Darren Clarke on his debut in 2005 before losing to Robert Allenby).
But Europe's Ryder Cup match-clincher at Celtic Manor this week ranks among the Match Play favourites.
If he shakes off inevitable ring-rust, McDowell can beat out-of-sorts American Heath Slocum tomorrow. The prize is a second-round clash with Allenby or Volvo Match Play champion Ross Fisher.
Accenture title-holder Ian Poulter features with McDowell in the star-studded Ben Hogan bracket, along with British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen and US Masters champion Mickelson. Good pals Poulter and McDowell could meet in the third round.
The man who emerges from this quarter plays the winner of the Bobby Jones bracket, topped by world No 1 Lee Westwood, in the semi-final.
Made a sensational Accenture debut as a teenager in 2009, when he beat Louis Oosthuizen, Hunter Mahan and Tim Clark before losing to eventual winner Geoff Ogilvy in the quarter-final.
Though eliminated by Oliver Wilson in last year's second round, McIlroy was badly hampered by a back injury early in 2010. Now fully fit, he could reach fresh heights on Dove Mountain this week.
First, he must first overcome recent Hyundai Tournament of Champions winner Jonathan Byrd in tomorrow's intriguing pipe-opener.
Also prominent with McIlroy in the Gary Player bracket are his Ryder Cup team-mates Martin Kaymer and Miguel Angel Jimenez, plus FedEx Cup holder Jim Furyk.
His Accenture record is unimpressive. Harrington has fallen at the first hurdle in three of the last four years, losing to Jeev Milkha Singh (2010), Pat Perez ('09) and Stewart Cink ('07); Cink beat him in round two in 2008.
In 11 appearances, the Dubliner has only reached the fourth round twice, so tomorrow's encounter with Australia's Accenture specialist Ogilvy, twice a winner of this event and a finalist on another occasion, is daunting.
Tiger Woods or Thomas Bjorn await the winner, with Paul Casey and Ernie Els also in the Sam Snead bracket. One can only hope the cut and thrust of match play will bring welcome relief for the Dubliner after his struggle for consistency on tour this season.