MARANA, Ariz. – One minute he looked like the Tiger Woods of old, burying a clutch birdie putt when he was down to his last shot.
One swing later, Woods looked lost in the desert.
With the pressure at a peak, Woods hit a 3-wood into a desert bush on the first extra hole Wednesday and was eliminated in the first round of the Match Play Championship by Thomas Bjorn.
“I blew it,” Woods said.
When his 18-foot bogey putt rolled past the cup, Woods removed his cap and conceded the match to Bjorn, a longtime friend who qualified for this World Golf Championship by winning last month in Qatar. Bjorn held their handshake and spoke to Woods, who listened intently and appeared shaken.
“That’s between me and Tiger,” Bjorn said when asked about their conversation. “But what I will say is that the game of golf needs him back at his best. And I’ve always been a great friend of his, and we’ve always had a good relationship. And I want to see him back at his best because I think it’s much more fun to go up against him when he’s absolutely at his peak. And so it was things down that line.”
Woods clearly isn’t at his best at the moment.
In three tournaments this year, he has failed to crack the top 20. This was only the second time that Woods, the No. 3 seed, was beaten in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship.
This might have been the most frustrating exit of all.
Twice he had simple chips on the back and failed to convert them into birdies, one of them at the par-5 13th that cost him the lead, the other at the par-4 15th that gave Bjorn the lead. With a chance to square the match, Woods missed a 10-foot birdie on the 17th hole that he said he should make “every time.”
And then came No. 1, the first overtime hole.
“It’s easy to put the ball in the fairway and I couldn’t even do that,” Woods said, so visibly upset that he was stumbling over his words.
The other top seeds didn’t have that much trouble.
Top-ranked Lee Westwood never trailed in his 3-and-2 victory over Henrik Stenson, while PGA champion Martin Kaymer had the shortest match of the opening round, a 7-and-6 win over 19-year-old Seung-yul Noh of South Korea.
Phil Mickelson, the No. 4 seed who only decided to play this World Golf Championship two weeks ago, won 6-and-5 over Brendan Jones.
Still, Woods had some company in going home early.
The Americans had four of the top 10 seeds at Dove Mountain, and Mickelson is the only one left. Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old Italian, became the youngest winner in this tournament with a 2-and-1 victory over eighth-seeded Steve Stricker, while Jim Furyk (No. 10) continued his struggles in losing to Ryan Palmer, who was making his Match Play debut.
The wild first day finally ended with a record eight matches going into extra holes, and four others going the distance. Of the 32 players remaining, 13 are Americans, 13 are Europeans and two each are from Australia, South Africa and Asia.
Coming off the worst season of his career, most of that from the crisis in his personal life, Woods does not appear to be making quick progress. Through three tournaments this year, he has failed to crack the top 20.
Woods keeps talking about needing more repetition as he works on a new swing, although he is not playing more tournaments. Asked if he might add the Honda Classic, Woods replied, “Probably now is not the time to ask me right now.”
He next is likely to play the Cadillac Championship at Doral in two weeks, with Bay Hill two weeks after that. Another possibility is the Transitions Championship outside Tampa, Fla., which is the week between Doral and Bay Hill.
It was the second time Bjorn has beaten Woods head-to-head – although not in this format – and both times Woods ended with a double bogey. Ten years ago, they played 72 holes together in the Dubai Desert Classic, and Woods hit into the water on the 18th hole.
Bjorn was gracious in victory, saying that Woods is not playing “his absolute best right now.” although he still saw some good swings.
Others piled on.
When asked about the youth movement in golf, especially after Manassero won his match, Rory McIlroy said all the young players feel they are good enough to compete with the likes of Woods, Mickelson, Stricker and Furyk.
“I mean, I don’t think Tiger and Phil have got any … well, yeah, I mean I don’t think Phil has gotten any worse,” McIlroy said after his 4-and-2 win over Jonathan Byrd. “Tiger isn’t as dominant as he used to be, and Phil won the Masters last year.”
Then came a tweet from Hank Haney, the swing coach from whom Woods split a year ago in May.
“For all the talk of Tiger’s poor driving the last 6 years I have never seen him drive it out of play with a match or tournament on the line,” Haney said on Twitter.
Woods leaves behind a Match Play Championship that remains compelling because of the format alone. The first three matches showed that.
Ian Poulter became the first defending champion in nine years to be eliminated in the first round, despite having difficulty remembering any bad shots he hit. All he could recall was Stewart Cink making one big putt after another – seven of them from the 6-foot range or longer – to win in 19 holes.
Cink never led in the match until a 6-iron into 4 feet on No. 1, the first extra hole.
“This is a big win for my confidence because I don’t know if there’s a tougher player in the field in match play than Ian Poulter,” Cink said. “It’s a big win for me.”
Poulter didn’t make a single putt over 5 feet.
“He didn’t miss a putt,” Poulter said. “That’s what you have to do. I did that last year. I didn’t this year and got punished for it.”
In the second match, former PGA champion Y.E. Yang went 20 holes to beat big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros. And right behind them came the most entertaining match of all when Ernie Els outlasted Jeff Overton in 19 holes.
Overton won the first three holes and they halved the fourth with a bogey. Els then ran off five straight holes and appeared to be sailing to a rare, opening-round victory when he let Overton back in the match. Before long, they wound up back on the first tee.
Els put his approach into the bunker, while Overton hit his under a bush in the desert and made double bogey.
“At least I won,” Els said. “I have a 90 percent failure rate in extra holes. It was really ugly out there.”
All that matters is that Els gets to return on Thursday, something 32 other guys wish they could say – Woods included.