MARANA, Arizona — Phew! Tiger Woods's exhalation of relief on the final green told its own story.
"Boy, it was tough," he said after his 1-up win over Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. "Emotionally, for both of us, we were back and forth."
It was classic Woods, the 2012 version, not the imperious 2000 model. One second he was zooming along nicely, the next he was careering into the desert. One second he was holing putts, the next he was hitting them left, right and anywhere but center. He even played left-handed with his backside against a bush. Luckily for him he had landed next to one of the friendly ones, not a prickly cactus that can do more than puncture a golfer's confidence.
Woods squeaked home with his backside intact. Just. Fernandez-Castano was 1 up with four holes to play and looked like he was going to verify his assessment that Tiger was beatable. But then Woods birdied the par-4 15th and Fernandez-Castano missed a tiddler of a putt on the 16th. Woods stumbled over the line with a tough up-and-down out of a bunker on 18. His eight-foot par putt sealed the match.
Someone should tell Gonzo, as the Spaniard is called, that Woods has lost his aura and isn't supposed to frighten his opponents anymore. (See: Rock, Robert, Abu Dhabi.)
Match Play proved the perfect format for Woods's game. No scorecard to fill in, just an opponent to stare down. Woods got off to a hopeless start, giving up the first two holes easier than an 18-handicapper with a hangover on Sunday morning. But when it came to the crunch holes on the back nine, Woods was the one who had sobered up while Fernandez-Castano began to look punch drunk. Woods identified his putt on 18 as the most important shot he hit all day, but he won the match with smoke and mirrors.
"The match, the way it went, was just up and down for both of us." Woods said. "He's 2 up, I have a chance to go 2 up, then I'm almost 2 down again. Then all of a sudden I'm 1 up. We were both slapping over there on the left on 10. He's taking an unplayable, I'm in the bushes and cactus. It was just an emotional match for both of us."
As ever with Woods these days, there are more questions than answers. He had a run from the ninth of bogey, double bogey, bogey. It would have sent him plummeting down the leaderboard at a regular stroke play event. But Woods has always been a fighter and knows from experience to hang in there for his chances. One came on the 18th green. Forget all that went before; he only needed that putt to advance to the second round.
Next up for Woods in this desert shootout is Nick Watney, who thrashed British Open champion Darren Clarke, 5 and 4. Clarke has been playing so wretchedly since his glorious Sunday at Royal St. George's that he threw his cap to the ground on Wednesday — and almost missed.
Watney was wise to keep his thoughts to himself on whether Woods is beatable in his current hit-and-miss form.
"I feel good," Watney said. "I started off the year with a pretty bad attitude, just very wound up and a very short fuse. I feel if I can go out and have a good time and not get caught up on every single shot, it should be a good match."