Accenture Match Play: Where Tiger's streak died

Accenture Match Play: Where Tiger’s streak died

Woods, who came back from 4 down against O'Hern, blamed a ball mark for a fatal miss.
Robert Beck / SI

It wasn’t the outfit. Tiger Woods was wearing a black shirt and hat, with charcoal-gray slacks. It must’ve been his sinewy arms and buff, V-shaped upper body, and the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet, 341-yard drive he had just launched at the 4th hole of the Gallery at Dove Mountain. Whatever, as Woods strode down the fairway a starstruck fan blurted out, “Wow! He looks like Superman!”

Woods was making his first visit to Tucson, which explains the Tigermania, but who’s to argue? With 55 PGA Tour wins and 12 major championships, and riding a Tour winning streak of seven, Tiger did appear to be the Man of Steel. But golf is not a movie, and while the Accenture Match Play Championship was filled with upsets, heroics, blunders and drama, plus a terrific Sunday final in which Henrik Stenson of Sweden defeated Geoff Ogilvy of Australia 2 and 1, the match of the week was played two days earlier on a chilly, windy Friday. That’s when Superman caught a cold.

Baseball’s Joe DiMaggio had Ken Keltner, Ken Jennings of Jeopardy had Nancy Zerg, and now it can be said that Tiger Woods has Nick O’Hern, a.k.a. Buzz Killjoy. In 2005 O’Hern, a gangly, lefthanded Australian who speaks softly and carries a big stick — the long-shafted putter he wields better than anyone in the game — had knocked Woods out of the Match Play in the second round. In the first two rounds last week Woods had cruised past J.J. Henry and Tim Clark, and the chances of Tiger allowing a Punch and Judy hitter like O’Hern to defeat him again were less than those of Barry Bonds winning a popularity contest. No one had ever beaten Tiger twice in match play. No one, that is, until O’Hern, who did it with a scrambling par on the second hole of a playoff.

So how does it feel to beat Tiger twice? “It’s something to tell the grandkids, I guess,” said O’Hern, who practically yawned while giving the answer.

And what about ending Tiger’s bid to match Byron Nelson’s record of 11 straight wins? “Yeah, that’s right,” O’Hern said, feigning surprise. “Tiger was going for eight in a row, wasn’t he?” O’Hern paused. “I don’t pay too much attention, to be honest.” Thanks, Buzz.

With that, the Streak was over. It was a shocker because Woods seemed destined to at least match Nelson’s record. If he had gotten through the Match Play, victory number 9 could’ve come at Bay Hill, where he has won four times; number 10 could’ve come at Doral, where he has won the last two years; and historic number 11 could’ve come at the Masters, which he has won four times in 12 starts. Easy? No. Realistic? Absolutely.

Woods’s path to the Match Play final looked like a cinch as every player in the top 10 of the World Ranking was gone by the weekend, except No. 8 Stenson. There were no Furyks, Phils or Ernies — not even a DiMarco — standing in the way.

On top of that, Tiger hadn’t really botched a Tour finish since he got dusted by Ed Fiori in the Quad Cities Open during his first weeks as a pro. February 23 will go down as the day Tiger finally played a game with which we weren’t familiar. He made two doubles and an X over the first seven holes, going 4 down in the process. His X came at the driveable par-4 7th hole, where he lost his tee shot right and ended up partially blocked by a tree. His ensuing desperate trick shot airmailed the green and disappeared into the desert, and he conceded the hole. “I just didn’t have control of my swing,” Woods would say later.

Despite his struggles, Tiger rolled in a birdie putt on the next hole. Three down. Then he forcefully drained a 10-footer at the 11th, walking off the green with his putter raised, acknowledging the roars. Two down. He gave fist pumps after a nice up-and-down for birdie at the 12th. One down.

Tiger was into it, and so was the crowd. On the way to the 13th tee, rules official Steve Rintoul could barely be heard when he said, “Stevie Williams [Tiger’s caddie] just told me, ‘It’s starting to feel a whole lot warmer now,’ and I don’t think he meant the weather.”

When O’Hern needed two tries to get a chip shot onto the 15th green, the match was all square. Woods went 1 down again after flubbing a three-iron at 17, but when he hit a prodigious drive at the 18th, even O’Hern knew that Tiger would make birdie to send the match to overtime.

Then came Tiger’s fatal error. On the first extra hole, he was in front of the par-5 1st green in two. A routine up-and-down likely would have won the match. Tiger chipped 3 1/2 feet past. O’Hern missed his 20-footer for birdie and was so resigned to a loss that when his caddie handed him his ball for the next hole, O’Hern scolded him, saying, “C’mon, mate, he doesn’t miss these.” But Woods did miss, not even catching a piece of the cup. He later blamed an unfixed ball mark that he said he had failed to notice.

Both players missed the green at the par-4 2nd hole. O’Hern played a bunker shot to 12 feet and Woods chipped to 15 feet. After Woods missed his par attempt, O’Hern curled in his putt for the win, earning a smattering of applause followed by an avalanche of stunned silence. Woods was devastated. “It wasn’t the streak,” he said glumly. “It’s the fact that I didn’t pay attention to detail. I got so enthralled and focused on the line, something so simple [the ball mark] simply escaped me.”

So the Streak was dead, but the matches went on, and someday the Stenson-Ogilvy final, scheduled for 36 holes, may be remembered as a clash of the titans. We’ve all been waiting for someone to push Woods, and Stenson and Ogilvy could be the guys. They fit the profile — big hitters who can chip and putt.

Ogilvy proved himself last year by winning the Match Play and then the U.S. Open with clutch shotmaking on the closing holes while bigger names were folding. Stenson proved it last week and vaulted to fifth in the World Ranking, jumping ahead of Vijay Singh (9th), Retief Goosen (8th) and Ernie Els (6th). “I can’t say I should be Number 5 in the world, but I feel as if I’ve established myself as a top 20 player,” said Stenson, who, some may recall, quietly finished third at last year’s Players Championship.

Ogilvy and Stenson are young — 29 and 30, respectively — and fearless. Granted, the Gallery’s opening seven holes run slightly downhill, but Ogilvy’s first five drives measured between 340 and 351 yards. He hammered a 296-yard three-wood to two feet for a kick-in eagle at the 5th hole.

Stenson iced the back-and-forth final with a near-ace on the 34th hole (the par-3 16th) and a birdie at the 17th, where he impressively muscled his second shot at the 601-yard par-5 onto the green. “He hits it long, hits it decent, obviously chips and putts pretty well, and he’s not afraid to win tournaments,” says Ogilvy. “I can’t see any tournament he couldn’t win.”

The shot of the week, not counting Tiger’s missed putt, belonged to Stenson. It came on the 18th hole of his quarterfinal match against O’Hern when he hit a sensational wedge shot off bare ground that spun to within two feet for a spectacular par that won the hole and the match, 1 up.

It wasn’t a bird. It wasn’t a plane. It was simply super, man.