MARANA, Ariz. — Remember what golf without Tiger Woods was like for the last eight months? Good. Because here it is again.
This will be yet another Tiger-less weekend on the PGA Tour. Woods, along with the other three players seeded No. 1 in their brackets, have all been eliminated from the Accenture Match Play Championship. Woods went down Thursday when he fell victim to a flawless round by South African Tim Clark.
The return of Tiger was all we heard about this week. And yes, Tiger was back-for all of two days. Three if you count his Tuesday practice round. (Allen Iverson and I do not count it.) Tiger’s elimination was a brick wall that stopped the wave of Tigermania that had been almost out of control this week in the Arizona desert.
This doesn’t mean the Match Play Championship isn’t going to have a thrilling conclusion. Thursday’s heroics — Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald and Stewart Cink won matches that went extra holes — bode well. Match play is the most entertaining form of golf to watch. The problem is, all those people who are Tiger fans but not really golf fans (and that includes a sizable portion of the media), aren’t going to care. To many folks, if it’s not Tiger, it’s not interesting.
But this isn’t the time to bemoan the loss of Woods and write off the tournament. It’s a time to celebrate Clark’s accomplishment.
The South African is ranked 33rd in the world and has earned more money — over $12 million — than anyone who has never won a PGA Tour event. The fact that he can beat Woods, and do so convincingly, is exactly what makes the Match Play Championship one of the most fun events on tour. The 4 and 2 loss to Clark was Tiger’s largest margin of defeat in this event. His previous worst was a 3 and 1 loss the first time Aussie Nick O’Hern beat him in 2005.
Clark did it by doing to Tiger what Tiger usually does to others — giving no quarter. Clark made six birdies, no bogeys. He didn’t give any holes away to Woods, who had four birdies himself. Tiger didn’t play poorly, Clark just played better. In fact, the only players in the field whose scorecards Thursday would have been a match for Clark’s were Ernie Els (six birdies, no bogeys), Ross Fisher (four birdies and an eagle in 13 holes), Oliver Wilson (nine birdies) and Anthony Kim (six birdies and an eagle). Kim didn’t advance, either. He lost to Wilson.
That’s the beauty of match play and why it’s so fickle. Sean O’Hair shot one over par and won his match against Boo Weekley. Kim shot six under and lost.
“This isn’t a huge surprise to me,” Clark said. “I’ve been playing pretty good this year. I just focused on what I could do. I literally hit every shot where I wanted to hit it today, barring a couple of tee shots coming in. I hit a lot of iron shots close and perhaps he wasn’t expecting that. But I’m not ever going to intimidate Tiger.”
The match turned when Clark won three straight holes early on the back nine, two of them par 5s that Woods failed to birdie. Clark was 3 up when Woods put his approach shot into a greenside bunker at the 14th, a shot that seemed certain to seal defeat. Then Woods holed the bunker shot, a stroke you can’t miss if you watch the day’s highlights. It was a shot that sent pulses racing with this message in capital letters: UH OH. Even Clark was alarmed.
“Well, we all watched that match last year against J.B. Holmes,” Clark said, referring to Tiger’s stirring come-from-behind win. “I figured, here we go, it’s about to start now.”
The bunker shot will be followed in the highlights packages by his next stroke, a tee shot out of bounds when he tried to drive the green at the par-4 15th. Clark won that hole, making his match dormie. It was the errant drive that sealed Tiger’s doom.
Clark approached this match with a different attitude than Aussie Brendan Jones, Tiger’s first-round victim. Jones was just happy to be here and was just happy to go home with a respectable showing, a 3 and 2 loss. Clark was whupped by Woods in this tournament two years ago, falling 5 down through the first six holes and never recovering. When he saw the pairings earlier this week, Clark he knew that if he got past Retief Goosen in the first round he’d probably face Woods. He beat Goosen soundly.
“I had the mindset, do I really want to win this match and play Tiger tomorrow?” Clark said. “I was a lot calmer than I would have been because I didn’t know if I really wanted to win.”
Now he’s glad he did. He joins Nick O’Hern, Peter O’Malley, Darren Clarke, Jeff Maggert and Chad Campbell as Tiger-tamers in this event. Woods has a 32-7 record.
The world number one seemed nonplussed by the defeat. Asked later where he goes from here, he managed a weak joke. “The airport,” he said. The good news is, Woods is indeed back. He just doesn’t happen to be here for the weekend. We can live with that. We’ve done it before.