Rude: Tiger falls victim to man with 'nothing to lose'

Tiger Woods looks on from the 17th green during the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Woods would lose his match on the 17th after failing to convert on a 20-footer for birdie.

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MARANA, Ariz. – And so we flash back to Abu Dhabi last month and see that the theme has carried over to the first round of paying attention once the superstars have left town.

Same story. Just a different desert, this one covered with snow over two days and the decisive holes coming in the dark.

In Woods’ case, he lost 2 and 1 to pal Charles Howell III, who has improved his short game, become more of a feel player and elevated to a new level, even before his breakthrough Thursday at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.

Woods and Howell have played numerous times together over the past decade or so – at Isleworth near Orlando when both were members and in PGA Tour practice and regular rounds. And, remarkably, Howell had never beaten Woods when in the same group, dating to the quarterfinals of the 1996 U.S. Amateur.

Until Thursday after the snow finally melted.

“It just shows you that match play is crazy,” said Howell, never worse than 15th place in his last three 2012 Tour starts and first three of this year, including a playoff loss at the Humana Challenge. “It’s a bit hard to believe sitting here today with this. But then I had the luxury of playing with nothing to lose.”

And so Woods, three times a winner and once a runner-up in this event, failed to get past the second round for the fourth year in a row. He also bowed out on opening day in 2011.

Woods played well, missing just one fairway and three greens in regulation. But Howell just played better in the only one of the 32 opening matches that featured no bogeys. Howell made four birdies to Woods’ two, missed only two greens and putted better, particularly from long range.

“I hit a lot of good shots out there,” Woods said. “Unfortunately it’s the nature of the format. It’s just the way it goes. I’ve seen matches where a guy shoots 7 under par and he’s going home, and I remember at La Costa there was a match where a player shot 7 over and won. It happens.”

Woods will play in next week’s Honda Classic near his home in south Florida. But he had plans before that.

“Go get warm,” he said.

Howell did miss birdie putts in the 7-foot range at Nos. 13-14 and walked off all square. But then he hit an approach stiff at 15 and rolled in a 24-footer at 16, going 2 up when Woods missed from 11 feet. Howell clinched when the two halved 17 with pars under a sky so dark that Howell couldn’t tell if his last two putts were uphill or downhill.

“I knew I had to play my best,” Howell said.

The winner made two other long putts, from 22 feet at the second and 27 feet at the eighth, both par 5s. Woods, meanwhile, missed putts of 6, 9, 11 and 11 feet. Two of them came at Nos. 10-11, after which Howell remained 1 up. Howell and Woods referred to those holes as a turning point, right up there with Howell’s birdies at 15-16.

“Unfortunately the putter doesn’t cooperate every day, but today was a good day for it to,” Howell said.

He said he kept waiting for Woods to do something spectacular, to “have a Tiger moment.” Howell said he flashed back to Woods making long putts on the last hole at Isleworth to win multiple times.

“It’s part of the getting beat by him so many times – you’re just waiting for it,” Howell said. “It’s kind of like a whipped dog. You know it’s coming.”

Only this time it didn’t. Howell had the big moments this time, wedging tight and making a long putt in quickly going 2 up.

Howell credits his strong play since the start of fall to the influence of new coach Gary Gilchrist and hard work on his short game, an area that he says still needs to improve. He said he is better mentally and has become less mechanical under Gilchrist.

“He has simplified things for me,” Howell said. “It’s been a nice balance.”

Balance that helped him finally tip the scale his way against Woods.

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