MARANA, Ariz.(AP) One easy way to keep track of the Accenture Match Play Championship is to look at the practice range.
It was packed on Wednesday, with 64 small sections of divots left by the world’s best players. By Thursday afternoon, the range was practically a ghost town as the field was cut down to 16 players after two rounds.
Tiger Woods was on the far left end, dressed in black, ominous as ever.
All the other top players were gone.
Going for his eighth straight PGA Tour victory in a tournament that might be the toughest to win, Woods barreled into the third round with another short day of work. This time the victim was Tim Clark of South Africa, recovering from a neck injury and playing his first tournament since late October. Woods was 5 up through six holes and never reached the 15th tee, winning 5 and 4.
“I played better than I did yesterday, which is great,” Woods said. “I’ve won before in amateur golf and junior golf, won by a large margin, but didn’t play well. You don’t feel very good going to the next match.”
But he sure felt better than Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson and the other players among the top eight seeds.
They’re going home.
Jim Furyk, the No. 2 seed, was 2 up with four holes to play until Chad Campbell birdied the 15th, rolled in an 18-foot birdie on the 18th to force extra holes, then two-putted for birdie to win on the 19th. It was the seventh time Furyk has played this tournament, and he still hasn’t reached the weekend.
Fourth-seeded Phil Mickelson also made an early exit, but not without some dramatic moments. Lefty made six birdies, gave away four holes with bogeys, but this match came down to a par.
Justin Rose was 1 up on the 15th hole when he pulled his tee shot into the desert brush, with no option but to pitch out backward. He had an 8-iron from 167 yards before Mickelson hit his second with a wedge. By all accounts, the match looked like it would be all square with three holes remaining, especially after Mickelson two-putted from 35 feet for par.
But as he stood on the side of the green, mentally rehearsing how to play the par-3 16th, he watched in stunned silence as Rose’s par putt dropped on the final turn. The hole is halved in pars. Rose, 1 up.
“It looked like all I had to do was make par and the match would be even,” Mickelson said. “That hurt the most.”
His plan was to hit first on the par-3 16th to the middle of the green, away from what he called a “carnival” pin cut atop a slope that fed off the green in two directions. Rose did the honors, and Mickelson felt he had to go after the flag. His 9-iron was about 10 feet long, enough to tumble off the green.
His next-to-impossible chip hit the hole, but trickled off the front of the green. His 25-foot par putt caught the lip and stayed out. And when Mickelson failed to birdie the par-5 17th, he removed his visor and conceded the match.
It was the first time in five years he failed to get to the third round.
Why not play it safe on the 16th and take his chances on the final two holes?
“The 17th was a hole we both would probably birdie,” Mickelson said. “And I didn’t want to leave it up to 18.”
Retief Goosen was the No. 6 seed against Niclas Fasth and knew he was in for a fight when the slow-paced Swede made two eagles in the first 10 holes, building a 3-up lead. Goosen won the next three holes, and Fasth looked like he might collapse when he missed three straight birdie putts inside 10 feet.
Fasth finally made birdie from the bunker on the par-5 17th, holing a 4-foot putt, then held on for a 1-up victory.
Vijay Singh (No. 7) was 2 down through 12 holes, but must have felt he had an advantage. In three years and four matches, it was the first time Stephen Ames had even reached the 13th hole, having lost big twice (7 and 6 to Mark Hensby, 9 and 8 to Tiger Woods) and won his opening match Wednesday by an 8-and-7 margin.
Singh birdied the last two holes to force overtime, but Ames spoiled the Fijian’s 44th birthday with a birdie on the 19th hole.
After two days, Woods was right where he wanted to be – still in the tournament. And suddenly, his path to an eighth straight PGA Tour victory looked as easy as the first two matches he won.
Even so, Woods knows not to look too far ahead.
Next up is Nick O’Hern, a short but straight-hitting Australian who beat Woods in the second round two years ago at La Costa. Still in Woods’ side of the bracket is Henrik Stenson, who won in Dubai earlier this month when Woods finished two shots behind. Another winner was Trevor Immelman, the last player to win a PGA Tour event that Woods played – the Western Open last July.
And as well as Woods has played for two rounds – he is one of five players who has never trailed this week – there’s always tomorrow.
“I’ve never played a match play event where all six rounds I’ve played great golf,” he said. “You’re going to have one or two rounds where you’re not going to play well. You’ve just got to get through those matches. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.”