Published February 23, 2012
MARANA, Ariz. – The good Tiger Woods knocked in a 50-foot birdie putt and drove onto the par-4 15th green, both times to erase a deficit. The bad Tiger Woods took three trips into the desert to lose the hole, once having to hit a shot left-handed.
After all these adventures, Woods had no trouble picking the most important shot he had Wednesday in the Match Play Championship.
"Probably the putt on 18," he said.
It was an 8-foot putt up the hill. It gave him a par, and a hard-earned win over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano in the opening round. And it allowed him to return Thursday to Dove Mountain, the only objective at this wild tournament.
Luke Donald won't have that privilege.
For the first time since he first qualified for this World Golf Championship in 2005, the world's No. 1 player was beaten in the first round. There is no such thing as an upset, not even for the No. 1 seed, given the 18-hole match and the quality of players.
Even so, not many saw this coming.
Only a year ago, Donald turned in the most dominant performance ever in the Match Play Championship. He never trailed the entire week, and none of his matches ever reached the 18th hole.
Turns out Donald won't be playing the 18th hole this week, either.
He never led against Ernie Els, and started dropping shots in bundles on the back nine until it was time to remove his cap and shake hands on the 14th green.
Els won, 5 and 4, becoming only the third No. 64 seed to win a match since this event began in 1999. Peter O'Malley beat Woods in 2002 at La Costa, and Ross McGowan defeated Steve Stricker two years ago at Dove Mountain.
"I don't think it would have mattered who I played today. I just didn't play well," Donald said. "I struggled. I gave away too many holes and made too many mistakes. You can't do that in match play against anyone, let alone Ernie."
Donald, coming off a year in which he became the first player to capture the money title on the PGA Tour and the European Tour, has not finished among the top 30 in the three tournaments he has played this year. The last time that happened was in August 2009.
He headed home to south Florida for two weeks off before the next WGC event at Doral.
"It's a terrible ride home, believe me," said Els, who has lost five times in the opening round. "I feel for Luke. He's got a lot of pressure on him. Yeah, I know exactly what it feels like."
Matteo Manassero decided to approach this week with no pressure at all. That changed when he build a 3-up lead on Webb Simpson, then had a string of one-putts on the back nine for birdies and par to hold him off.
Everyone feels pressure at some point. Such is the nature of match play.
Rory McIlroy was feeling it right after Donald left the course. The U.S. Open champion seized control by winning four straight holes, and he was 3 up with three holes to play. Then came a bogey on the 16th, and the 17th. Suddenly, he was 1 up and playing the 18th hole against George Coetzee, and he popped up his tee shot that made par a challenge.
Luckily for McIlroy, his opponent failed to take advantage. Coetzee went 60 feet by the pin on his approach and three-putted for bogey. So McIlroy escaped, and with Donald out of the way, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland had a clear path to No. 1.
So does Lee Westwood, who played a tidy round in beating Nicolas Colsaerts.
McIlroy and Westwood could replace Donald atop the world ranking by winning the Match Play Championship.
"Obviously, it's another incentive waking up each morning and knowing that if you win your match at the end of that day, at the end of the week you could be world No. 1," McIlroy said.
Even so, it's best not to look ahead. Too many things can happen, as was the case on a sunny day in the high desert.
— Ian Poulter, the Match Play winner two years ago, suffered his worst loss in nine appearances when Bae Sang-moon beat him, 4 and 3.
— Bill Haas, coming off that monster win at Riviera just three days ago, looked like a winner when he was 1 up on the 17th green and had a 5-foot birdie putt. Ryo Ishikawa holed from 18 feet, Haas missed, and the Japanese star made par on the 18th to win.
— In the most thrilling match of the opening round, Jim Furyk was on the verge of sending Dustin Johnson home early for the fourth straight year after Johnson hit his tee shot into the desert and had to take a penalty drop on the 20th hole. Furyk chipped across the green and three-putted for bogey to lose.
— Rafael Cabrera-Bello was 3 up with three holes to play against Jason Day when he bogeyed three straight holes, and Day beat him with a 4-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole.
Woods was 1 down until he drove the 15th green for a two-putt birdie, won the 16th with a par to go 1 up, and got up-and-down from a bunker after he missed the green from the 18th fairway.
"We both made our share of mistakes, there's no doubt about that," said Woods. "But somehow, I was able to move on."
Woods now plays Nick Watney, who had no trouble beating British Open champion Darren Clarke.
McIlroy, the highest seed remaining, faces Anders Hansen, while Westwood plays Robert Karlsson and No. 4 seed Martin Kaymer faces David Toms, who birdied the last hole to secure a win over Rickie Fowler.
Perhaps the most intriguing match is Kyle Stanley and Brandt Snedeker, who have been in a match play situation before. It was only a month ago when Stanley made triple bogey on the last hole at Torrey Pines, then lost in a playoff to Snedeker.
Stanley went on to win the next week in Phoenix.
There will be three All-American matches, three all-European matches and one all-Australian match. That would be John Senden against Day, and the only downer for the boys Down Under is that they're the only Australians left at Dove Mountain.