MARANA, Ariz. – Men march into root-canal surgery with more bounce in their step.
They walk into IRS audits more cheerfully.
Walking up the 18th fairway, Tiger Woods led his match with Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano Wednesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but you wouldn’t have known it. Woods looked miserable. In fact, it is difficult remembering him look more miserable winning anything in his life.
You know it was partly the cold he caught, the hacking cough told you as much, but it was mostly the bad golf, a disappointing day of ball striking and balky putting. Woods spent too much time hiking through the desert to enjoy this victory, too much time squeezing past scrub brush and cacti looking for golf balls. Woods played shots from places a rattlesnake wouldn’t feel comfortable, but he survived, which is pretty much the best you can say about his first-round performance.
Woods defeated Fernandez-Castano, 1 up, with a brilliant up-and-down from a bunker at No. 18, halving the hole and claiming the match. When it was finally over, mercifully over, Woods was more relieved than satisfied.
“I don’t think either one of us had our best stuff today,” Woods said.
Woods was 2 over on his card through 11 holes.
Fernandez-Castano was right, you know. Woods was “beatable.” Afterward, Fernandez-Castano was kicking himself for failing to take advantage.
“If there was one day to beat Tiger, this was it,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I had my chances and didn’t take the opportunity. You can’t do that with one of the greatest players in history.”
In Wednesday’s start, Woods didn’t look comfortable from the beginning. He backed off shots on the range to fight through coughing spells.
At the first hole, Woods missed an 8-foot birdie chance to halve the hole. At the second, he pushed his tee shot into the desert, forcing him to play left-handed to escape the brush. He lost that hole to fall 2 down.
After fighting back to take the lead, 1 up, with birdies at the seventh and eighth holes, Woods gave it back with a brutal adventure at the 10th. He pulled his tee shot into the desert, where he was fortunate to escape without a snake bite or cactus needles stuck in his rump. He slapped his second shot out from under a bush, but the shot skidded behind another bush. He impressively whacked his third shot right through that bush, but it ballooned and fell short in a waste area on his way to losing that hole with a double bogey.
“We both made our share of mistakes, there’s no doubt about that,” Woods said. “Somehow, I was able to move on.”
Give Woods credit. He advanced. He fought through the waywardness to win.
“It was just an emotional match for both us,” Woods said. “It was tough, it was tough on both of us.”
Actually, match play might be good for what has been ailing Woods. Every match somewhat mirrors the pressure of being in the hunt in the final-round of a stroke-play event. With failures to close out victories in his last two starts, match play gives Woods a chance to putt under that kind of must-make pressure.
“Today, I hit a couple bad putts,” Woods said. “But I had a hard time reading these greens.”
While Woods holed a 52-foot bomb for birdie at the seventh, he missed a load of other birdie chances. He missed the 8-footer at the first, another 8-footer at the fifth and a 12-footer at the sixth. At the 17th, he missed a 9-foot birdie chance to end the match.
There were back-nine highlights. There was Woods’ marvelous tee shot at the short 15th, a 343-yard par 4. Woods drove the green and just missed his 20-foot eagle chance. That win squared the match.
The match got ugly for Fernandez-Castano at the 15th. When he missed his birdie chance there, the fans whooped and yelped and cheered. At the 16th, when Fernandez-Castano missed a short par putt to give Woods the lead, fans cheered wildly again, this time before Woods had even holed out.
There was little chatter between these two until the match was nearly over. It was intensely played.
“Tiger is a true gentleman,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I had good chances. I’m sure he played far from his best.”
But well enough to advance.
Watch live coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Golf Channel, Thursday/Friday 2-6PM ET; Saturday noon-2PM ET; Sunday 8AM-1PM ET. NBC coverage can be seen live Saturday/Sunday, 2-6PM ET.