Stephen Gallacher to face toughest head-to-head test in world

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FREDRIK Jacobson’s late charge up the world rankings – he climbed from 66th into the top 50 after tying for third in the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles – didn’t do Stephen Gallacher any favours for his debut in this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Instead of facing American Jason Dufner in tomorrow’s first round at Dove Mountain in Arizona, the 38-year-old Scot will now be up against Ian Poulter, arguably the toughest head-to-head opponent in the world these days based on his match-play record.

Not only is the Englishman a course and distance winner, having claimed this title at the same venue three years ago, he has also taken over Colin Montgomerie’s mantle as Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman.

He has played in three winning teams in four appearances against the Americans, claiming four points out of four as his Saturday afternoon heroics proved the catalyst for Jose Maria Olazabal’s side to pull of their stunning final-day fightback at Medinah last year.

“Dufner would have been tough enough, but Poulter was the match-play king of the Ryder Cup,” said Gallacher of his opening task in the £5.6 million event that also features Paul Lawrie and Richie Ramsay.

“I’ll have my work cut out trying to force my way past him. I’ll need to be at the very top of my game. But I am not losing any sleep over my draw.

“I am coming off my second career win in the Dubai Desert Classic and my form has been good this year. So I’ll focus on my own game and not start worrying about his and just try to enjoy the experience.”

Poulter, who beat Paul Casey in an all-English final in 2010, is heading into the event lightly raced so far this year, having made his only competitive appearance in the PGA’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii early last month.

“He’s had a lengthy lay-off, so who can say for sure what shape his game is in?” added Gallacher, whose only previous appearance in one of the world championship events saw him finish in a tie for 58th in the Bridgestone Invitational eight years ago.

“I know Ian from playing with him on the European Tour and we get on fine. But, once we’ve exchanged pleasantries, it will be straight down to business because we won’t be out there trying to be pals.”

The winner of that tie will face either American Bo Van Pelt or Australian John Senden in the Sam Snead bracket, which also features Lawrie, who reached the third round 12 months ago on his return to the event after a nine-year absence.

As expected, the Aberdonian is up against Scott Piercy, the American who won last season’s Canadian Open, in the first round, with either world No 3 Luke Donald or German Marcel Siem awaiting the winner in round two.

For his debut, Ramsay also has a different opponent than expected in the Ben Hogan bracket due to the Jacobson factor. Instead of Australian Adam Scott, he will now face Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion and a winner already on the European Tour after the South African overhauled Scott Jamieson in the final round of the Volvo Golf Champions in Durban.

It is also a daunting task but Ramsay will earn respect from his opponent, not just on the strength of his European Masters victory last September but also his 2006 triumph in the US Amateur Championship, which culminates in match-play.

If the Aberdonian comes through that one, another talented Springbok will be lying in wait if Branden Grace, a four-time winner on the European Tour last year, can take care of American Robert Garrigus in his opening tussle.

It is the first time since 2001 that three Scots have featured in the elite 64-strong field and both Gallacher and Ramsay were grateful to have Lawrie showing them the ropes in the Arizona desert yesterday in their first full practice round at the Ritz-Carlton Course.

“It was brilliant having Paul there to offer advice and guidance as this will be his seventh appearance in the Accenture,” admitted Gallacher.

The draw features two all-Irish duels – world No 1 Rory McIlroy against Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell taking on fellow major winner Padraig Harrington.

When Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker both pulled out of the event, Lowry thought he would be up against second-ranked Tiger Woods but that also changed when Jacobson, last man in as replacement for the injured Snedeker, shot up the rankings.

Woods, the winner in 2003, 2004 and 2008 and making his first appearance since claiming the Farmers Insurance Open for a record seventh time just over three weeks ago, will now meet his former Presidents Cup partner Charles Howell III, while Jacobson is up against Open champion Ernie Els.

The draw also features English duo Chris Wood and David Lynn playing against Masters champion Bubba Watson and US Open champion Webb Simpson respectively while another American, Hunter Mahan, launches his title defence against Italian teenager Matteo Manassero.

Mahan had a disappointing finish at the Northern Trust Open, seizing a share of the final-round lead on Sunday before dropping three shots in his last four holes to wind up tied for eighth behind John Merrick.

“Match play is fickle,” said Mahan of this week’s event. “You can play great and go home in the first day. It’s really six individual tournaments against world-class competition. You have to step on the first tee on the first day and play well.”