PLAY the course; not the man. That’s the approach Stephen Gallacher will take when his run of keeping good company continues in a first-round clash with Ernie Els tomorrow in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.
It’s a tough test for Gallacher, the only Scot in the 64-man field at Dove Mountain, where he lost by 2 and 1 to Ian Poulter at the same stage on his debut in the $9 million event 12 months ago.
Els, after all, was the knock-out king when the World Matchplay was held at Wentworth, claiming that crown a record seven times, including two separate hat-tricks.
But, having upstaged both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to become the first player to defend the Dubai Desert Classic title at the start of the month, the 39-year-old certainly won’t be fazed by the sight of the four-times major winner standing beside him on the first tee.
“There’s no such thing as an easy game in this event and, no matter who I was playing, my only thought was to just play the course and see how I get on,” Gallacher told The Scotsman after waking up yesterday morning to learn about his draw that stemmed from Els climbing above compatriot Louis Oosthuizen in the latest world rankings. “I’ve played with Ernie lots of times, he’s a really nice guy and I get on well with him so I’m looking forward to it.
“You have to be comfortable in the company of guys like Ernie, Tiger and Rory if you want to improve. You have to feel as though you belong there and playing with Tiger in the Champions’ Challenge on the Tuesday in Dubai certainly helped me for being paired with both him and Rory on the Thursday and Friday. Both Tiger and Fred Couples said some nice words about me and that was nice.
“If you feel as though you belong in company like that, you’re not going to be overawed and just get on with your own game. Sometimes you can feel like a fish out of water in situations like that but look at the likes of Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter. They’ve played in lots of these events now whereas last year I was only playing in my fifth WGC event. But now I’m going into all of these events with higher hopes.
“I’m not just interested in being in these events; I also want to compete in them. Last year I played in both these WGC events [the Cadillac Championship takes place at Doral in a fortnight’s time] but didn’t know the courses or what to
expect. Now I do so I want to play well in them and also the Honda Classic, having received an invitation for that in between.
“Dove Mountain is definitely a course you need to know. I played off the back tees in practice last year only to find they’d moved a few of them up for the event. I’m going back there, though, knowing where not to miss on holes so I feel as though I’m going to be better prepared for what lies ahead this week.”
Gallacher, who will face either US Open champion Justin Rose or American Scott Piercy if he can claim the Big Easy’s scalp, will also head into the event having received a “refresher” session with Dave Stockton, having seen his putting transformed since he paid a flying visit to California last September to see the short-game guru.
“It was a massive decision for me to go out there to see him,” he said. “But I think it has helped a lot. My putting has been freed up, if you like. I feel as though I’m a bit streaky now and when I covered those ten holes in ten-under in Dubai that was probably the best I’ve putted since I was 14 or 15. Back then you never thought about anything technical and now I’m back to just concentrating on rolling the ball.”
Full first-round draw (all times EST):
9:25 a.m.: Ian Poulter, England, vs. Rickie Fowler, U.S.
9:35 a.m.: Jimmy Walker, U.S., vs. Branden Grace, South Africa.
9:45 a.m.: Bubba Watson, U.S., vs. Mikko Ilonen, Finland.
9:55 a.m.: Keegan Bradley, U.S., vs. Jonas Blixt, Sweden.
10:05 a.m.: Steve Stricker, U.S., vs. George Coetzee, South Africa.
10:15 a.m.: Graham DeLaet, Canada, vs. Patrick Reed, U.S.
10:25 a.m.: Jordan Spieth, U.S., vs. Pablo Larrazabal, Spain.
10:35 a.m.: Thomas Bjorn, Denmark, vs. Francesco Molinari, Italy.
10:45 a.m.: Sergio Garcia, Spain, vs. Marc Leishman, Australia.
10:55 a.m.: Bill Haas, U.S., vs. Miguel Angel Jimenez, Spain.
11:05 a.m.: Dustin Johnson, U.S., vs. Peter Hanson, Sweden.
11:15 a.m.: Victor Dubuisson, France, vs. Kevin Streelman, U.S.
11:25 a.m.: Jason Day, Australia, vs. Thorbjorn Olesen, Denmark.
11:35 a.m.: Jamie Donaldson, Wales, vs. Billy Horschel, U.S.
11:45 a.m.: Matt Kuchar, U.S., vs. Bernd Wiesberger, Austria.
11:55 a.m.: Ryan Moore, U.S., vs. Joost Luiten, Netherlands.
12:05 p.m.: Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, vs. Kevin Stadler, U.S.
12:15 p.m.: Jim Furyk, U.S., vs. Chris Kirk, U.S.
12:25 p.m.: Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland, vs. Gary Woodland, U.S.
12:35 p.m.: Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, vs. Martin Kaymer, Germany.
12:45 p.m.: Brandt Snedeker, U.S., vs. David Lynn, England.
12:55 p.m.: Webb Simpson, U.S., vs. Thongchai Jaidee, Thailand.
1:05 p.m.: Jason Dufner, U.S., vs. Scott Stallings, U.S.
1:15 p.m.: Luke Donald, England, vs. Matteo Manassero, Italy.
1:25 p.m.: Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, vs. Boo Weekley, U.S.
1:35 p.m.: Lee Westwood, England, vs. Harris English, U.S.
1:45 p.m.: Zach Johnson, U.S., vs. Richard Sterne, South Africa.
1:55 p.m.: Hunter Mahan, U.S., vs. Gonzalo Fenz-Castano, Spain.
2:05 p.m.: Henrik Stenson, Sweden, vs. Kiradech Aphibanrat, Thailand.
2:15 p.m.: Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa, vs. Nick Watney, U.S.
2:25 p.m.: Justin Rose, England, vs. Scott Piercy, U.S.
2:35 p.m.: Ernie, Els, South Africa, vs. Stephen Gallacher, Scotland.