2014 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship | Five players to watch

Rory McIlroy
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Rory McIlroy makes his first start on the PGA Tour in 2014 this week at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
By T.J. Auclair
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 | 10:02 a.m.

This week, the PGA Tour takes a break from the grind of stroke play and moves on to one of the most exciting formats in golf -- match play.

The WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship tees off at Dove Mountain just outside Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday with a 64-man field. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott are all notably absent, but the field is still loaded with stars.

A hot putter is crucial in a match-play setting and -- as we've often seen in this event -- it's not uncommon for top seeds to have a short week.

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Here are five players to watch.

5. Billy Horschel
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Tied for sixth at the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: For some players -- not all -- intensity can be a could thing when it comes to match play. Few players on Tour are as intense as Horschel. He's fun to watch and truly locked in. This will be his first start in the Match Play Championship and something you can be sure he's looking forward too. The last time Horschel was a part of a match=play situation was at the 2007 Walker Cup where he went 3-1. The new season hasn't been anything particularly special for Horschel just yet. Maybe a change of format is just what he needs to get a kick start.

4. Jordan Spieth
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Second at Hyundai Tournament of Champions
Reason to watch: Spieth has made seven starts in the new season. One was a missed cut at the Sony Open. His next-worst finish? A T19 at the Farmers Insurance Open. If there's just one little knock on Spieth lately, it's been his difficulty with closing out tournaments when he's in contention. Keep in mind this is the same guy who had no status on Tour at the start of last season. He's come a long way in a short period of time. Spieth got a taste of match play on the professional level late last season in the Presidents Cup, where he was a member of the winning U.S. team. He's aggressive and a birdie machine -- two huge assets to command in this format.

3. Graeme McDowell
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Third at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: Based on past Ryder Cup performances, I just feel that whenever McDowell is in a match-play competition, he's someone you need to watch out for. Since winning the U.S. Open at Pebble in 2010, McDowell has proven himself a fairly regular major contender (six top-14 finishes since that win). Granted, this isn't a major, but McDowell and his putter can get the job done in tough situations. Speaking of Pebble... that was McDowell's last start on Tour two weeks ago and his finished in a tie for seventh. He's feeling good about his game right now.

2. Justin Rose
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
Third at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: Rose missed some action the last couple of months due to a shoulder injury after tossing his golf ball to his caddie from a long distance. He appears to be back to full strength now and played at last week's Northern Trust Open, where he finished in a tie for 45th -- his first start on the PGA Tour since November. Whenever I think Justin Rose and match play now, I think back to the final day of the 2012 Ryder Cup and his singles match against Phil Mickelson. Rose was incredible down the stretch and a key factor in the amazing comeback the Europeans made that day. This tournament is far from the Ryder Cup, but over the last several years, Rose has established himself as one of the best players in the game.

1. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2013-14 season:
T6 at World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: This is McIlroy's first start on the PGA Tour since the calendar flipped to 2014. With a couple of top-10 finishes already under his belt on the European Tour -- including a T2 in Abu Dhabi -- it's looking like we can expect big things from McIlroy in 2014 after a disappointing 2013. McIlroy was the runner up in this tournament back in 2012. This truly serves as his first chance to make a big splash in 2014 and he's clearly the marquee name in the field.

Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.


T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.