La Costa hosts golf's version of March Madness

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

When La Costa Golf Resort hosts the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship this week, it will be the most exciting venue in golf because of one principle: In match play, everyone has a chance.

Just ask defending champ Tiger Woods. Two years ago, he was knocked out by a virtual unknown, Austrailian Peter O'Malley. Obviously, the world's No. 1 player made amends last year, but this year, he nearly was knocked out in the first round.

This week, Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love, III and Mike Weir (Ernie Els withdrew) will battle like Duke, Kentucky, Stanford and Arizona to make it to the Final Four. Except these guys are fighting for something heavier than school pride. The championship purse is $7 million, with $1.25 million the champion.

The event is a five-day, 64-man playoff that started Wednesday. Woods could have a tough second round match with Shigeki Maruyama. Maruyama has momentum after his second-place finish at the Nissan Open last week.

The event builds to a head on Saturday afternoon for the semifinals. Players drop one by one, and every day the survivors' slates are wiped clean. The 36-hole championship match starts Sunday morning.

Because this format begs for aggressive play early and often, the best players in the world will be firing at pins and playing each hole as if they're tied for the lead on the 72nd hole of a major championship. Match play is deeply rooted in golf tradition. It was the only way matches were scored in the game's infancy. While La Costa is quite different from the grounds on which golf grew up, it's becoming a belt-notching play for the avid golfer who likes to walk in the footsteps of legends.

But there's one catch. The regular Joe can play the same 18 holes that host the Match Play Championship only on Thursdays through the end of April. The other way to see the same 18 is to play both the North and South Courses - an endeavor that will cost almost $400. The pros play a hybrid of the two courses that is made up the original 18 holes Dick Wilson designed in 1964. The course expanded to 27 holes in 1970 when Wilson's associate, Joe Lee, squeezed the extra nine holes in and around the original 18. In 1985, Lee returned to design another nine holes on a newly acquired piece of property.

While Lee's work flows seamlessly with Wilson's design, it's a shame that La Costa's growth couldn't work out better for the recreational golfer. The pros will play the North Course's first three holes and its 13th through 18th for the front nine of this week's competition. They'll finish with the South's back nine.

La Costa is known for its bunkers and enormous greens. The North's No. 16, which is the seventh hole in the tournament, is a picturesque 189-yard par-3 over water to a green that is tough to hold. The sand trap behind the green catches balls that don't bite. Only skilled sand players will make it out of this downhill bunker without hitting the ball too thin, through the green and into the water.

The three finishing holes are risk-reward plays at their best. The 16th is a 188-yard par-3 with a water fall guarding the front of the undulating green. The long, downhill par-4 17th could decide any tight matches. At 483 yards, the dog leg right requires a long and precise drive down the left side for the best angle to the green. Players who need to make a move here will be challenged. An all-square or 1-up match will climax on the par-5 18th, a 558-yard hole most players can reach in two with a good drive. Since eagle and birdie are within reach, the 18th is a dramatic way to finish off a match play event.

Where to play

So if you're in Carlsbad and you're looking to play while the Accenture Match Play Championship is in town, check out nearby Aviara Golf Club (760-603-6900), an Arnold Palmer design that overlooks Batiquitos Lagoon. A few years ago, it made Golf Magazine's "Top 10 You Can Play" list.

If you're on a tighter budget, check out Balboa Park Municpal Golf Course (619-570-1234). It's a quality track for under $40.

Off the links

San Diego has plenty of nightlife and family activities to soak up the downtime. The revitalized downtown section of San Diego called, "The Gaslamp Quarter," is similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans with bars and restaurants. The San Diego Zoo is home to more than 4000 animals, and it's not far from Shamu and company at SeaWorld. Disneyland is 70 miles north in the Los Angeles area.

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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