MARANA, Ariz. — Tiger Woods had to play a left-handed shot out of the desert. Retief Goosen holed out from 156 yards and didn’t even win the hole. Dustin Johnson twice won a hole after taking a penalty drop.
But the strangest sight of all Wednesday at the Match Play Championship didn’t come from the golf course.
It was Luke Donald on his way to the airport.
“Golf is like that sometimes,” Donald said after his 5-and-4 loss to Ernie Els, becoming only the third No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round. “It’s a fickle game, and sometimes it bites you.”
It almost took a bite out of Woods, who had to rally to beat Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano; and U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, the No. 2 seed who was 3 up with three holes to play and was sweating on the 18th until George Coetzee missed a short putt for par.
Donald was so dominant last year in winning the Match Play Championship that he closed out all six of hismatches before they reached the 18th hole. He won’t be playing the closing hole at Dove Mountain this year, either.
Els, who only got into the 64-man field when Phil Mickelson took his family on a ski vacation, delivered the biggest shocker in the first round by taking the lead for good on the eighth hole and putting the world’s No. 1 player in a hole from which he couldn’t recover.
Donald lost in the opening round for the first time in eight appearances in this World Golf Championship.
“I don’t think it would have mattered who I played today. I just didn’t play well,” Donald said. “I struggled. I gave away too many holes and made too many mistakes. You can’t do that in match play against anyone, let alone Ernie.”
Woods nearly found that out, too.
He trailed the Spaniard with four holes to play, and both of them looked beatable. That changed when Woods drove the par-4 15th green to win with a two-putt birdie, won the 16th with a par and then closed out the Spaniard with an 8-foot par putt for a 1-up win.
“We both made our share of mistakes, there’s no doubt about that,” said Woods. “But somehow, I was able to move on.”
That was the only objective in this World Golf Championship, a single-elimination format in which the only proper use of the word “upset” is the mood of the 32 guys who are headed home.
— Ian Poulter, the Match Play winner two years ago, suffered his worst loss in nine appearances when Bae Sang-moon beat him, 4 and 3.
— Bill Haas, coming off that monster win at Riviera just three days ago, looked like a winner when he was 1 up on the 17th green and had a 5-foot birdie putt. Ryo Ishikawa holed from 18 feet, Haas missed, and the Japanese star made par on the 18th to win.
— In the most thrilling match of the opening round, Jim Furyk was on the verge of sending Johnson home early for the fourth straight year when Johnson hit his tee shot into the desert and had to take a penalty drop on the 20th hole. Furyk chipped across the green and three-putted for bogey to lose.
— Rafael Cabrera-Bello was 3 up with three holes to play against Jason Day when he bogeyed three straight holes, and Day beat him with a 4-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole.
The other top seeds didn’t have too many problems, although McIlroy had a nervous moment.
He won four straight holes on the back nine to seize control against Coetzee and was 3 up with three to playwhen McIlroy lost the next two holes with bogeys, then popped up a tee shot and made par a challenge. Coetzee, however, blew his approach some 60 feet long on the 18th and three-putted for bogey, giving McIlroy a 2-up win.
Lee Westwood never trailed in his 3-and-1 win over Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium. The test for Westwood comes on Thursday against Robert Karlsson, when he tries to advance to the third round for the first time. Martin Kaymer easily dispatched Greg Chalmers, while Steve Stricker outlasted Kevin Na.
McIlroy and Westwood now have a chance to replace Donald at No. 1 in the world if either were to win this week.
“Obviously, it’s another incentive waking up each morning and knowing that if you win your match at the end of that day, at the end of the week you could be world No. 1,” McIlroy said.
Donald will head home to Florida to shake off a poor start to his season.
“It’s a terrible ride home, believe me,” said Els, who has lost five times in the opening round. “I feel for Luke. He’s got a lot of pressure on him. Yeah, I know exactly what it feels like.”
Fernandez-Castano got some attention this week for saying Woods was “beatable” and not at his best. “He’s beatable, too,” Woods replied, and the way they played, both were right.
Woods lost the opening two holes and looked as though he might fall 3 down until making a 10-foot par save. Woods won three of the next five holes, one of them with a 50-foot birdie putt, and that’s when the matchbecame a case of give-and-take.
He wasn’t wild all the time, but it cost him when he was: a left-handed shot out of the desert on No. 2; too much club that sent him over the 11th green and into the desert. But he settled down right about the time the Spaniard began to struggle with the putter, missing putts inside 10 feet on the 15th and 16th holes that enabled Woods to take the lead.
“I think if there was one day to beat Tiger Woods, this was it,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I didn’t take the opportunity. I missed a few shots. And of course, you can’t miss spots if you want to beat one of the greatest in history.”
Johnson had no business winning his match.
He already was 3 down when he drove into the desert. He was given relief, but didn’t check the path of his swing, and his club hit a cactus on the way back, leading to a muffed shot that stayed in the desert and required a penalty drop. He was hitting his fourth shot from the desert. Furyk was hitting his third from the desert.
Johnson wound up winning the hole with a bogey.
He managed to take the lead going to the 18th, only to bogey. Then, on the par-5 second hole, Johnson had to take another penalty drop from the desert and appeared to be beaten until Furyk chopped up the rest of the hole for bogey.
“It’s a funny golf course. Anything can happen,” Johnson said. “And I just hung in there.”
It never looked more bizarre than when Goosen hit into the desert, took a penalty drop, pitched out and holed a 156-yard shot for his birdie. Brandt Snedeker jarred a 40-foot birdie putt to halve the hole. It was only fitting that their match was the longest of the day, going 21 holes until Snedeker won with a par.