MARANA, Ariz. – Henrik Stenson would be the first to say how lucky he was to win the Match Play Championship in 2007.
He was on the ropes in the opening round against Zach Johnson, headed for certain defeat, when he somehow saved par on the 15th hole and Johnson missed a good birdie chance. Stenson birdied the next two holes, won the match and never lost the rest of the week.
If that scenario were to repeat itself this week, consider the plight of the following players from Wednesday's opening round:
— Graeme McDowell was 3 down with three holes remaining against Gary Woodland. He saw the Cadillac SUVs in position to drive him back to the clubhouse. He saw his agent on the phone, perhaps booking a flight. He saw Woodland's ball headed for the flag on the par-3 16th.
"I thought it was over," McDowell said.
He thought wrong. Woodland's tee shot took a big hop over the green and between two corporate suites. He took two shots to get to the green. Bogey. Woodland had wedge in hand when he pulled his approach to the 17th and had 8 feet left for par, which he didn't have to putt because McDowell made a 12-foot birdie putt. And then Woodland went from one bunker to the other on the 18th and still wasn't on the green after four shots.
Just like that, the match went to extra holes. McDowell made a 6-foot birdie on the 19th hole and lived to see another day at Dove Mountain.
"I'm sure he's extremely disappointed right now — and I'm extremely elated," McDowell said. "I'm surprised to be sitting here, having won. Yeah, I hit a couple of quality shots down the last couple of holes, but he had mistakes, as well. It's a brutal format."
— Jason Dufner went 3 down with a bogey on the 10th hole, and Scott Stallings matched his birdies on the next two holes. The PGA champion was headed for defeat when Stallings made one too many mistakes. A sloppy bogey on the 14th hole and the 17th hole, along with Dufner's clutch birdie on the par-3 16th squared the match.
Stalling made one last error, coming up short of the first green in overtime. Dufner made a par and advanced. It was Dufner's first time in three years making it out of the first round, and it required plenty of help.
— Brandt Snedeker never led in his match against David Lynn of England, though he was never too far out of the match.
Even so, the match was level when Snedeker faced a tough chip from the collar of the 18th green with hardly any of the putting surface between his ball and the cup. It was a marvelous chip to save par. Then, he had another delicate chip to the right of the first green, against short-sided. He chipped beautifully to about 4 feet for par.
He won with an 8-foot birdie on the next hole.
"I played a great stretch of golf in there and a bad stretch, and I've just got to eliminate the bad stretch," Snedeker.
But at least he gets to keep trying.
— Factoring in conceded putts, Pablo Larrazabal shot a 68 and was on his way back to Spain. Ernie Els shot 75 and has a tee time at Dove Mountain on Thursday.
No ever said the Match Play was fair, though Els might have had a break coming his way.
The Big Easy made it hard on himself with bogeys on both par 5s on the back nine, even though one of those bogeys was good enough to win the hole against Stephen Gallacher, who took a tour of the desert. Els was two down with three to play and won the next two holes with pars.
Gallacher hit a beautiful putt from 10 feet for birdie to win on the 18th. He thought it was in. Els thought it was in. But it was out.
On the 19th hole, Els won with a two-putt par and somehow made it to the second round.
On Thursday, they all start over with 32 players — call them survivors — trying to make it to Friday.
For all the comebacks (eight of the winners were trailing in their matches after 12 holes) and the 11 matches that went to the 18th hole or beyond (Sergio Garcia defeated Marc Leishman in 22 holes), the opening round went large according to form.
Three of the top four seeds — Stenson, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy — advanced. The exception was Zach Johnson, who was hammered by Richard Sterne of South Africa. It was the fourth straight year Johnson failed to make it out of the first round.
Only three of the top 10 seeds lost, which is not bad considering this fickle format — Johnson, Dustin Johnson (6) and Steve Stricker (9). And 23 players who had the better seeding went on to win.
McDowell summed it up best when he said, "It feels like a Sunday afternoon on Wednesday."
Thursday won't be much different.