By JEFF BABINEAU
Better not mark up those brackets quite yet. Ernie Els, World No. 4, could be back in the WGC Match Play field.
“Honestly, it’s legit,” says tournament director Mike Garten.
Els previously had written on his Web site (ernieels.com) that he was planning to start his 2008 U.S. schedule at the Honda Classic Feb. 28-March 2. But somebody from his camp called the WGC Match Play inquiring about housing accommodations earlier this week; the story was first reported by The Arizona Republic.
Players have until 5 p.m. EST on Friday to commit to the event, which offers spots to the top 64 players in the Official World Golf Ranking. The brackets freeze at 5 p.m. EST on Monday. If a player chooses to withdraw after that time, his opponent will receive a first-round bye.
“I’d call it a 50-50 coin flip right now,” Garten said of luring Els, who has fallen in the first round of the Match Play in each of the past two years. “I don’t know what has changed on his end, but he’s at least taking a look at adjusting his schedule.”
Els tied for sixth at the Indian Masters last week, and tied for third the week before in Dubai, where he squandered a final-round lead to eventual winner Tiger Woods. Els lost last year in the first round of the Match Play to Bradley Dredge at The Gallery at Dove Mountain in Tucson, Ariz., site of next week’s event.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the only player who is being counted out of the Match Play mix is the injured Brett Wetterich, who is ranked 45th. Wetterich’s absence would open the door for No. 65 J.B. Holmes, who, if Els did decides to play, would face Tiger Woods.
If Els chooses to skip the Match Play – and he may, considering that adding the Match Play would leave Els looking at playing six of seven weeks leading into the Masters – Woods then could open against No. 66 Anthony Kim.
The week-to-week health of No. 33 Arron Oberholser, who has battled wrist and shoulder ailments and has yet to play in 2008, also is in question. But Garten says he has been told Oberholser is expected to play.
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Jeff Babineau is editor of Golfweek. To reach him e-mail email@example.com.