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GOLF INSIDER: Underdogs have a lot of bite in February Frenzy

Forget about March Madness. The year’s most compelling, 64-participant exercise in bracket busting begins today in Marana, Ariz.

It is time, once again, for a five-day fix of February Frenzy, courtesy of the PGA Tour.

Before the final putt falls in Sunday’s final round at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the odds are excellent that you’ll see more underdogs prevail than in the next five NCAA men’s basketball tournaments. And there’s real hope for crowning a longshot champion.

In the first nine years of this event, three winners began the week seeded 52nd or higher in the 64-player field. The 2002 champ, Kevin Sutherland, opened as the No. 62 seed.

For NCAA bracketologists who need a translation into hoops lingo, that’s the equivalent of a No. 16 seed cutting down the nets in the title game at the Final Four. Considering that no 16th seed has won as much as a single game in the history of the NCAA men’s tournament, that qualifies as uncharted basketball territory.

Yet in this event, the bottom four golfers in the Match Play field — all of them the equivalent of college basketball’s No. 16 seeds _ have combined to fashion a 27-37 overall record, with one championship. A total of 13 golfers seeded in the lower half of the field (33rd or above) have made it to Match Play’s version of the Final Four, with four seasons when at least half of the competitors in semifinal matches began the week seeded 41st or higher.

Even the favorites heading into Thursday’s opening matches at The Gallery at Dove Mountain feel the buzz of uncertainty in the air. And like it.

Phil Mickelson, the leading money winner on the 2008 PGA Tour ($1,944,700) and No. 2 player in the world golf rankings, called the Match Play event “one of the coolest tournaments we have” because the potential exists for so many first-round upsets.

That is why J.B. Holmes, the supposed sacrificial lamb for top-seeded Tiger Woods in today’s featured match, shrugged and smiled during a Monday news conference when asked about his strategy for trying to upset the hottest golfer on the planet.

“Any time you get a chance to play against the best player in the world … you have to be doing pretty good to even have that opportunity,” said Holmes, who ranks second on the season money list ($1,375,975) and knocked off Mickelson in a playoff to win the FBR Open on Feb. 3. “I’m just excited to be able to go out and play and see what I can do. I’ve never gotten to see [Woods] up close and watch him play. I get to maybe compare a little bit and see what I need to improve on.”

Along the way, Holmes hopes to stun the golf world. It’s happened before. Woods has won this event twice. But he’s twice been eliminated by Nick O’Hern, a journeyman from Australia who is winless in 61 career starts at PGA Tour events.

Holmes, a college golfer at Kentucky who remains a huge Wildcats basketball fan, plans to draw inspiration today from a hoops-related source.

“I like the movie Hoosiers a lot,” Holmes said, reflecting on the film about a small-town team from Milan, Ind. that beat schools with much larger enrollments to win the 1954 state championship. “I guess that would be my underdog story.”

Underdog stories, of course, are the primary attraction during Match Play week. They unfold frequently enough that the following numbers — while cause for head scratching — are not misprints:

No. 2 seeds in this event (Mickelson’s spot this week) have posted only an 11-9 overall record in matches, with no appearances in Sunday’s 36-hole title match.

No. 5 seeds in this event have a losing record (6-9).

Players seeded No. 59 (10-9), No. 60 (10-9) and No. 62 (9-8) have won more matches than they’ve lost.

Golfers seeded among the top 10 have combined to win three titles; golfers seeded 52nd or higher have combined to win three titles.

If you remove Woods’ two victories from the equation, no player seeded better than ninth has won the event. That occurred last year, when ninth-seed Henrik Stenson edged No. 11 Geoff Ogilvy, 1-up.

Holmes, the No. 64 seed this week, hopes to add to that legacy this week. Although a newcomer to the Match Play event, Holmes said he can draw positive vibes from beating Mickelson with a birdie on the first playoff hole to claim his second tour title on Super Bowl Sunday.

“Sudden death is the same thing as match play, except [if] you screw up once, you don’t get another chance,” said Holmes, 25. “Match play is a little bit more forgiving than that. You can go down a couple of holes early and come back and still do well in the end.”

History suggests that lesson will be reinforced, time and again, during the next five days at the PGA Tour’s version of February Frenzy.

Quoteboard

“It’s really cool. You always sense his presence there, no matter where you go. It never gets old.”

— Angela Stanford, Saginaw resident and former TCU golfer,on the feeling she gets practicing at Shady Oaks Country Club, home course of Fort Worth golf legend Ben Hogan

By the numbers

3 Rank of Matt Every, the 2006 Ben Hogan Award winner, on this week’s Nationwide Tour money list ($81,300).

9 PGA Tour competitors with season scoring averages in the 60s, topped by Stuart Appleby (69.00) and including Southlake resident Rory Sabbatini (69.85), the reigning Colonial champion.

27 Consecutive rounds of par or better at PGA Tour events by Scott Verplank, a Dallas native and the EDS Byron Nelson champion. Verplank began his streak in August.

80.91 Percent of fairways hit off the tee by Fort Worth resident Mark Brooks, ranking second among PGA Tour competitors.

316.4 Average driving distance, in yards, for Bubba Watson, tops among PGA Tour competitiors.

Fort Worth area pros

How exempt players with Fort Worth area connections (current residents or golfers from Fort Worth area high schools or colleges) are faring on the PGA, Champions, LPGA, Nationwide and Duramed Futures tours this season. Listed is the official earnings and where it ranks on the money list:

PGA TOUR

Rory Sabbatini — $1,013,480 (6)

Chad Campbell — $398,377 (25)

Ben Crane — $353,429 (33)

Tag Ridings — $197,998 (65)

Todd Hamilton — $46,800 (124)

Stephen Leaney — $38,100 (140)

Brandt Jobe — $27,319 (145)

J.J. Henry — $25,286 (145)

Mark Brooks — $9,996 (176)

LPGA TOUR

Angela Stanford -- $12,655 (20)

Heather Young --$5,790 (34)

CHAMPIONS TOUR

No earnings yet.

NATIONWIDE TOUR

Greg Chalmers -- $40,550 (7).

J.J. Killeen -- $7,002 (42).

Kelly Grunewald -- $6,988 (43).

D.J. Brigman -- $1,984 (82).

DURAMED FUTURES TOUR

Season opens in March.

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