Woods fell behind J.B. Holmes on the first hole when his tee shot sailed into the desert and out of play, and he was three holes down with five to play after taking another penalty shot from the desert.
But he turned it around quickly, winning the next four holes, capped by a 35-foot eagle putt on the 17th. He escaped with a 1-up victory on the 18th when Holmes missed an 8-foot birdie putt.
I just kept telling myself, even when I was 3 down, theres still a chance to win in regulation, Woods said. I was just going to have to start playing a hell of a lot better. Then all of a sudden, putts started falling in from everywhere.
It started with a 15-foot birdie on the 14th, followed by a meaningless 18-foot birdie on the 15th, when he only needed two putts to win the hole. The first overhand fist pump came at the 16th when he made a third straight birdie from just over 20 feet to square it for the first time since they shook hands on the tee to start the match.
The loudest roar came on the par-5 17th, which Woods reached in two with a 5-wood from the rough. He holed his long eagle putt for his first lead of the match, then held on to avoid what would have been a shocking departure.
Holmes, whose big drives kept pressure on Woods the entire match, was helpless at the end.
I got beat, Holmes said. Playing the best player in the world, 3 up with five to play, I just said, Dont do anything stupid. Make him beat you. And he did.
Woods shot 30 on the back nine in his first tournament since he shot 31 on the back nine of the Dubai Desert Classic to overcome a four-shot deficit and win his fourth straight official tournament.
For some reason, momentum just goes your way, Woods said. Sometimes the run is early in the round, sometimes middle or late. It just so happened that in the last two rounds, it was late. But at least it happened today. At least I had a run. I wasnt playing good enough to win the match unless I had a run.
None of the top four seeds had an easy time at Dove Mountain.
Ernie Els, the No. 4 seed who changed his mind last week and decided to enter a tournament that has been so vexing, shot 40 on his opening nine and was soundly beaten, 6 and 5, by Jonathan Byrd. It was fourth straight time Els has lost in the first round.
Second-seeded Phil Mickelson, the winner Sunday at Riviera, held off Pat Perez 1 up. Third-seeded Steve Stricker needed 20 holes to beat Daniel Chopra, a small measure of revenge. Chopra beat him in a four-hole playoff at the Mercedes-Benz Championship last month.
Four of the top eight seeds were gone after the first day of the Match Play, one of the most chaotic days in golf. Jim Furyk (No. 6) continued to struggle with his game, losing to Colin Montgomerie, 3 and 2; Justin Rose (7) fell to Rod Pampling, 2 and 1; and Rory Sabbatini, who played college golf at Arizona, lost to Bradley Dredge, 4 and 3.
You can never really fancy your chances in this format, Lee Westwood said after making eight birdies in a 3-and-2 victory over Brandt Snedeker. This is the kind of week where you unpack, but you dont move stuff too far away from your suitcase.
Woods appeared to have his bags packed.
He had said on Tuesday that when players fall behind two or three holes, they generally lose. That looked certain when Holmes took a 3-up lead through five holes, and he staved off one charge with a birdie on the ninth to stay 2 holes ahead.
Woods had to take an unplayable lie in the desert on the 13th, swatting the bag with his driver after taking his drop.
Then came a charge that sent cheers resounding across the desert fauna, starting with his birdie on the 14th. Holmes three-putted from the back of the 15th to hand Woods the next hole, and appeared to have the advantage on the 16th when Woods right foot slipped on his downswing, and his shot spun back 20 feet below the hole.
It was just one of those things where everything kind of turned my way, Woods said. Very, very fortunate to advance.
Next up is Arron Oberholser, who is playing with an injured shoulder. He made his 08 debut by beating Mike Weir, 3 and 1.
The Woods-Holmes match was among only eight that went the distance, the fewest number since 2002.
The blowouts came from Woody Austin, who birdied his first four holes against Toru Taniguchi; Niclas Fasth, who holed a bunker shot for eagle on No. 1 and buried Richard Green of Australia; and Byrd making Els wish he had taken that holiday in South Africa.
All won by a 6-and-5 margin.
You just dont know what to expect in match play, Fasth said. Its like flipping a coin. It really doesnt matter who you play, except that nobody wants to play Tiger in the first round.
For the longest time, Woods looked like a pushover.