MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — In his 50th meaningful match as a pro, Tiger Woods found himself in strange territory.
He had never faced an opponent who consistently blasted it so far past him off the tee, but playing against J.B. Holmes in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship, Woods was first to hit from all but one fairway.
More troublesome was that Woods had never been down by more three holes in match play and come back to win.
“Not like this,” he said Wednesday.
Woods was 4-down through seven holes last year to Nick O’Hern, but wound up missing a winning putt from 4 feet on the 19th hole and losing on the next one. His greatest rally was being 2-down with three holes against Ian Woosnam in the first round of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth in 1998, and beating him on the first extra hole.
“I just kept saying I could win in regulation,” Woods said. “That’s what I’ve always done. I’ve been in that situation a lot of times. It doesn’t mean that you do, but you have to believe that you can.”
He made a believer out of Holmes.
Woods was 3 down with five holes to play when he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 14th. Then came Holmes’ lone mistake down the stretch, a three-putt from behind the 15th that allowed Woods to lag his 18-footer for birdie, and he was walking to the hole when it dropped, charging up the gallery.
Then came a 20-foot birdie on the 16th to square the match, followed by a 35-foot eagle to complete his amazing rally.
And when Holmes missed an 8-foot birdie on the final hole, Woods had escaped with a 1-up victory.
“You’re playing the best player in the world, 3 up with five to play,” Holmes said. “I just said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid. Make him beat you.’ And he did. What do you do?”
The only thing left was to remove his cap and shake hands with the world’s No. 1 player, and on Wednesday, a survivor.
Woods exhaled, more relieved than thrilled to still be playing.
“I wish I was playing better,” he said. “Obviously, I need to go do some work and get everything straightened out.”
None of the top seeds had an easy time at Dove Mountain.
Phil Mickelson, fresh off his victory at Riviera, birdied his first two holes against Pat Perez and appeared to have everything in hand until Perez holed birdie putts from 50 feet on the 14th and 40 feet on the 15th to square the match. Mickelson responded with a 35-foot birdie on the next hole, and won with a 4-foot par on the last.
Steve Stricker, the No. 3 seed, held his breath when Daniel Chopra’s 30-foot birdie to win on the 18th tickled the edge of the cup, just like so many putts at the Mercedes-Benz Championship last month when Chopra beat him in a playoff.
This ending was different, for it was Stricker who holed from 8 feet for birdie on the 20th hole to advance.
The only top seed to had a short day was Ernie Els, which was not a good thing. Els only last week decided to come to Arizona for a tournament has haunted him, instead of a holiday on the beach in South Africa.
But he piled up five bogeys on the first nine holes to fall six behind, and when he made an eagle on the 10th to win his first and only hole, he looked at Jonathan Byrd and said, “Does this count for two (holes)?”
Byrd wound up winning, 6 and 5.
There were two other blowouts by the same margin. Woody Austin birdied his first four holes and plowed through Toru Taniguchi, earning a second-round match against Adam Scott.
Niclas Fasth holed a bunker shot for eagle on the first hole and closed out the match with a bogey over Richard Green.
“You just don’t know what to expect in match play,” Fasth said. “It’s like flipping a coin. It really doesn’t matter who you play, except that nobody wants to play Tiger in the first round.”
Holmes appeared to be doing just fine, especially when Woods hit his opening tee shot into the desert and out-of-bounds, and quickly fell 3 down through five holes when a sand wedge spun off the front of the green.
He looked to be road kill in the high desert, especially after taking another penalty drop in the desert on the 13th, needing a flawless finish to have any hope. And that’s just what he got.
It was a different desert, seven time zones away, but a familiar finish.
The last time Woods played, he shot 31 on the back nine of the Dubai Desert Classic to rally from a four-shot deficit to win. In the high desert north of Tucson, he played the back nine in 30 for a 1-up victory.
“For some reason, momentum just goes your way,” Woods said. “You just get on a run. Sometimes the run is early in the round, sometimes middle or late. It just so happened the last two rounds, it was late. But at least it happened today. At least I had a run. I wasn’t playing good enough to win the match unless I had a run.”
Next up for Woods is an old friend, but unfamiliar foe.
He plays Arron Oberholser, whom he has known since their junior golf days in California. Oberholser has a shoulder injury and made his 2008 debut by beating Mike Weir of Canada, 3 and 1.
He has never played Woods in match play, and said the last time they played in any competition was at a college tournament hosted by USC when Woods was a sophomore at Stanford.
“I remember it because he hit some shots where I just sat there with my jaw on the floor,” Oberholser said.
Woods has that flair for theater, and he needed an award-winning performance to get past Holmes, whose only consolation that he made Woods beat him.
“I didn’t fall apart, like you see some people,” he said. “I gave him a battle, and today he just won.”