Tiger Woods off to an 'ideal' start at WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship

Tiger Woods beat Brendan Jones in his first match of the tournament, 3 and 2.
Robert Beck/SI

MARANA, Ariz. — The baseball player Curt Schilling once said that mystique and aura are dancers at a nightclub. Golf, though, has Tiger Woods, who after an eight-month absence, the longest of his career, radiates those qualities perhaps now more than ever.

The world's No. 1 player went three under for his first two holes since winning the U.S. Open on a broken leg last June, and he easily beat an awed and mostly misfiring Brendan Jones, 3 and 2, in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Wednesday.

"I got off to probably an ideal start," said Woods, who never trailed after seizing the first hole with a birdie and the second with an eagle. "I hit a couple loose irons in the middle part of the round. But other than that, I really hit it pretty good all day."

Woods, top seed in the Bobby Jones Bracket, will face the No. 8 seed, Tim Clark, a 3-and-2 winner over two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen. Clark and Woods tee off at 12:02 p.m. local time (2:02 Eastern) in the second round on Thursday.

After winning his 14th major, Woods had undergone surgery to repair a torn ACL and two hairline fractures in his lower leg. He said he would spend Wednesday evening icing and elevating his left knee.

Since June, Woods had existed only in our imaginations, or on TV. Was that really him out there on Wednesday, or was it a ghost? Throngs of fans and media surrounded the first tee, and the dramatic impact of his return was unmistakable to everyone except, apparently, Woods himself.

"It felt like nothing had changed," he said. "Walking down the fairway, it felt like business as usual."

With all eyes focused on his comeback, Woods tempered his masterly start with three bogeys on the front nine. Still, Jones, a 33-year-old Aussie, couldn't capitalize, matching Woods's bogeys on two of those holes.

Unlike the first round of the Match Play in 2008, when J.B. Holmes nearly upset Woods, Jones looked like he was in over his head.

"We have to buy our own lunch," Jones said earlier in the week, when asked about the differences between the Japan Tour, where he works, and the PGA. He added: "You don't have the media to a point that we have got here or in America in general."

Preparation had gone well enough. Jones secured a seasoned caddie, Ron Levin, through his friendship with Levin's old boss Todd Hamilton, another Japan Tour veteran. Jones and Levin began learning the new course on Monday, and there was much work to do. Woods had not hit a shot in competition since last June, but that didn't necessarily give Jones a leg up. Because of the vagaries of the Japan Tour's schedule (it doesn't start until mid-April), he had not competed since early December.

When he wasn't scouting the course and knocking the rust off his game, Jones charmed the media with self-deprecating humor. "If I get beat by anybody," he said, "I would like to get beat by Tiger." Asked what he would say when he met the great one, Jones replied, "Can I have three [strokes] a side?"

One problem for Jones may have been that he never met Woods before Wednesday. "We never saw him," Levin said on Tuesday night. "I wanted Brendan to meet him to get the mystique thing out of the way."

Jones, who admitted he "got a few chills up the back of my neck" when he heard last week that he would be playing Woods, looked like he still had them at game time. It probably didn't help that on the first tee, after Woods had nonchalantly polished off a banana, a corpulent fan bellowed at the nervous underdog, "Have fun, Jones!"

On the first two holes, Jones made tentative pars that couldn't measure up to Tiger's fireworks. On the par-3 third hole, Woods hit his tee shot into an awkward lie in a greenside bunker. Given an opening, Jones bladed his 66-foot chip shot 21 feet past the pin. Both bogeyed.

Woods found trouble off the tee on the par-4 fifth hole, but Jones followed suit.

Jones won a hole with a par 4 on the seventh, but Woods answered with a birdie on the par-5 eighth to regain his comfortable 2-up margin. Jones did not make a birdie until the par-5 13th hole. Woods made eagle.

By the time Jones finally started looking comfortable and eagled the short, par-4 15th hole to avoid elimination, it was too little, too late.

While a large, vocal crowd followed the day's feature match, the rest of the field worked in relative quiet.

Anthony Kim, the No. 3 seed in the Sam Snead Bracket, was the first player to close out his opponent, the struggling Lin Wen-Tang of Taiwan, who made seven bogeys and no birdies. Kim won, 7 and 5.

Camilo Villegas, the No. 3 seed in the Jones Bracket, made his way to the clubhouse shortly afterward, having made five birdies to demolish Rod Pampling, 7 and 6.

As usual, the opening day was rife with upsets.

• Pat Perez, a No. 16 seed, made three birdies and an eagle and upended Padraig Harrington, the top seed in the Snead Bracket, 1 up.

• Sergio Garcia, the top seed in the Gary Player Bracket, fell three down through three holes when his opponent, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, started birdie, birdie, birdie. Garcia fought back but bogeyed the last three holes, and Schwartzel won, 1 up.

• Mathew Goggin, the No. 14 seed in the Player bracket, defeated No. 3-seeded Kenny Perry, 2 and 1.

• Sean O'Hair, the No. 12 seed in the Player bracket, beat No. 5-seeded Adam Scott, 1 up.

In a near upset, world No. 3 Phil Mickelson, the No. 3 seed in the Ben Hogan bracket, survived three straight back-nine birdies by No. 15-seeded Angel Cabrera, closing out the Argentine with a birdie on the 19th hole.

If both players were to continue to win, Mickelson and Woods would meet in the semifinals on Saturday. They have never met in this event.

The Ritz-Carlton course is new this year, and it proved a stiff challenge even for the best players in the world. Bogeys were plentiful, and the key Wednesday was simply to bounce back with red numbers. Paul Casey, the No. 6 seed in the Player bracket, beat No. 11-seeded Aaron Baddeley by erasing four bogeys with three birdies and an eagle.

In its first day under the microscope, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course took some mild criticism for its roller-coaster greens. Woods called them the slowest, most undulating surfaces he's ever seen on Tour.

The most closely contested match of the day was between Davis Love III, the No. 15 seed in the Snead bracket, and No. 2-seeded Henrik Stenson, who made par after hitting his drive into the base of a jumping cactus on the 20th hole. Love finally won the match with a par on the 21st hole.

Still, the return of Woods was the story of the day.

"We are starved for him," NBC's Roger Maltbie told SI, and he may as well have been speaking for the rest of us. More than one major news outlet called Woods a one-man stimulus package, and of the 500 media credentials issued to cover the Accenture, about 150 were issued after Woods announced his return last Thursday.

Television ratings have sagged, and even the normally impervious dream world that is the PGA Tour has looked vulnerable to the sickened economy, with corporations like Buick, U.S. Bank and FBR giving up title sponsorships.

But now the man who built up professional golf to unprecedented dimensions is back. He is here to keep chasing Jack Nicklaus, to amuse us through the thaw of winter and, if we're lucky, to keep the whole thing from caving in on itself.

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