MARANA, Ariz. — Turns out that cold front did more than turn Tucson into a winter wonderland. It transformed it into upset city.
Thursday’s snow-delayed opening round at the Match Play was Tiger Woods’s first event since winning at Torrey Pines three weeks ago, unless you count his outing with President Obama in Florida last weekend. That day he reportedly teamed with the Prez to win his match, so you could say that Woods came here chasing a third straight W. Woods’s Day One opponent, Charles Howell III, entered as one of the hottest players of the season’s opening weeks, with three top 10s in five starts. But was he ready to stare down Woods, his friend, occasional mentor and the second-ranked player in the world? Here’s how it went down:
Howell arrived first at the opening tee and received a nice ovation. This will not be a fashion column, but CHIII sported a bright green sweater with a white collar, perhaps to blend with a course that still had small snowdrifts in the shady areas. Woods strolled in moments later goateed and sporting an all-black ensemble. The clear message: It’s business time. Woods asked a nearby official, “What’s the batting order?” And moments later, Tiger, leading off, piped a 3-wood. Howell ripped a driver, and off they went.
Both players parred the first, and as he walked off, Howell quipped to his caddie, “These greens have some speed, you know?” The sun was out, and it was, for at least an hour or so, no longer comically cold at Dove Mountain. The putting surfaces were dry. We were primed for some good golf.
Second Hole (All Square):
On the par-5 second, Woods pulled his tee shot into the desert and slammed his driver into the ground in anger. He escaped the pernicious plant life in one shot, hammered his approach left of the green, chipped up, and was staring at a little four-footer when Howell buried a 22-foot birdie putt to grab his first lead of the day.
Holes No. 3 and No. 4 (Howell 1-up):
Woods and Howell halved No. 3 and 4. On the par-4 fifth, Woods semi-fanned his drive and found himself on the right side of the fairway, 30 yards behind Howell. But Woods’s approach settled 19 feet above the hole, and he walked in the birdie, putter raised in the air, to square the match. Game on.
Sixth Hole (All Square):
After trading pars on the par-3 sixth, Woods and Howell had a long, friendly chat — one of several on the day — while strolling up the fairway together on No. 7. On the green, Howell chipped to a foot and then gave Tiger his three-footer. (Shotlink called it 3 feet, 4 inches.) As Tiger turned away, Howell asked, “Is this good, too?” “Yeah, yeah, it’s good,” Woods replied. Just a nice, friendly outing so far.
Eighth Hole (All Square):
Woods got angry at himself after smashing his 3-wood left of the green on the par-5 eighth, and he was left with a tricky 50-yard pitch from a knobby valley below the green. As he strolled back to his ball after surveying the green, a fan hollered, “Get 'em Tiger! Stanford!” Woods’s pitch kicked off the slope. He scrambled to save par, but CH III drilled a 20-footer for birdie and the lead.
Ninth Hole (Howell 1-up):
Both players made pars at No. 9, with Howell draining a steely five-footer to stay 1-up as they made the turn.
A Word From Our Sponsors:
This seems like a good time to thank the unofficial sponsor for today’s column: Big Lots. In a madcap search for thermal underwear on Wednesday night, I hit two Wal-Marts and a Target before finally scoring long johns at the closeout retail chain. Isn’t Wal-Mart supposed to be the place to go when you need anything? Also, I wonder if $6 underwear will be an approved expense. Back to golf.
Tenth Hole (Howell 1-up):
Howell chipped to within a foot on No. 10, prompting this out of Tiger: “Nice shot, Chucky. You can pick it up, man.” Then Woods promptly missed a 10-footer for birdie to win the hole.
11th Hole (Howell 1-up):
There was a backup on No. 11 that allowed Woods and Howell to chat on the tee with the group in front of them, Rickie Fowler and Carl Pettersson. Howell plowed through a granola bar, while Woods devoured what appeared to be a PB&J. Since this was match play, I gave the snack edge to Tiger, 1-up. You wanted a complete breakdown of this thing, didn’t you?
13th Hole (Howell 1-up):
On the 13th, Woods finally squared the match when Howell blinked for the first time, as his greenside bunker blast checked up nine feet short, and he missed the putt. Woods canned his seven-footer, and an over-served fan screamed, “It’s TIGER TIME, baby!” Meanwhile, with the daylight starting to fade, you could almost hear the assembled golf media thinking, “It’s DINNER TIME, baby!”
15th Hole (All Square):
After both players parred No. 14, Howell delivered the shot of the match on the par-4 15th. From the left side of the fairway, he drilled his approach from 136 yards to within six inches. The crowd roared its approval. Woods’s approach was on line, but it sailed long, leaving him with a tough chip to halve the hole. No good. Howell was once again 1-up.
16th Hole (Howell 1-up):
On the par-3 16th, both Howell and Woods had looks at birdie. With Tiger putting from just over 10 feet, and Howell more than 24 feet away, the gallery leaned in expecting Woods to square the match. But again it was Howell who made the big shot, draining his putt and possibly taking the life right out of Woods, who missed his birdie attempt on the low side. Suddenly, with darkness setting in, Woods was 2-down with two holes to play.
17th Hole (Howell 2-up):
On No. 17 Howell hit driver into the left rough and an icy approach to the center of the green, 18 feet from the hole. Woods faced a downhill, double-breaker from 32 feet that was the kind of putt you make once a summer if you’re lucky. Tiger’s putt never sniffed the hole, and Howell calmly lagged to a few inches to close it out. Woods shook his friend’s hand, did a quick greenside television interview, hopped into a nearby SUV and was gone.
Charles Howell III beats Tiger Woods 2 & 1.
Remarkably, it was the only first-round match Thursday where neither player made a bogey. It was also the third time Woods has lost in the opening round in 13 appearances in the Match Play. He hasn’t advanced past Round 2 since he won here in 2008. Howell improved to 5-7 lifetime at the Match Play, while Woods dropped to 33-10.
When it was over, Howell acknowledged that in all the many rounds he’s played with Woods, this marked the first time he’d beaten him, even in practice rounds at Isleworth in Orlando.
“I've played a lot of golf with Tiger, and he's been a friend," Howell said. "I've had questions, I've asked for help from him, he's always been extremely gracious with that. Then on top of that, I don't think I've ever beat the guy while we were playing in the same group. That goes back to Isleworth.
“It shows you that match play is crazy," Howell said. "I did have to play a good round, but it's a bit hard to believe sitting here today with this."
For his part, Woods was upbeat about his own performance and gave credit to his friend for playing better.
“I played well, I really did. I hit a lot of good shots out there,” Woods said. “Unfortunately it's the nature of the format, and I'm not advancing. You've just got to beat the guy you're playing against, and I didn't do that today. Chucky won the match.”