The slow road back for Tiger Woods took another detour Wednesday when he followed a clutch birdie with a shocking shot into the desert and lost to Thomas Bjorn in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
It was only the second time that Woods, the No. 3 seed, had been eliminated in the first round.
REVIEW DOVE MOUNTAIN
The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain is the venue for this week's World Golf Championship event. Have you played it? If so, click on its name to write a review of your experience. Also, be sure to check out our PGA.com Course Guide to review all the courses you've played and to find the perfect course for your next round.
2011 WGC-ACCENTURE MATCH PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP
The Accenture Match Play marks the beginning of the 13th season of World Golf Championship events.
But this was stunning even to Woods.
Moments after he made an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to extend the match, he hit a 3-wood so far to the right that it landed in a desert bush. It took two shots just to get it back onto the grass. After badly missing an 18-foot bogey putt, he conceded to Bjorn.
"I blew it," Woods said.
Twice he had simple chips on the back nine and failed to convert them into birdies, losing his lead on the 13th and falling behind on the 15th. He missed a 10-foot birdie on the 17th that he figured he should make "every time."
And then came No. 1, the first extra hole.
"It's easy to put the ball in the fairway and I couldn't even do that," Woods said, so visibly upset that he was stumbling over his words.
The other top seeds didn't have that much trouble.
Top-ranked Lee Westwood never trailed in his 3-and-2 victory over Henrik Stenson, while PGA Champion Martin Kaymer had the shortest match of the opening round, a 7-and-6 win over 19-year-old Seung-yul Noh of South Korea.
Phil Mickelson, the No. 4 seed who only decided to play this World Golf Championship two weeks ago, won 6-and-5 over Brendan Jones.
Woods had some company in going home early.
The Americans had four of the top 10 seeds at Dove Mountain, and Mickelson is the only one left. Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old Italian, became the youngest winner in this tournament with a 2-and-1 victory over eighth-seeded Steve Stricker, while Jim Furyk (No. 10) continued his struggles in losing to Ryan Palmer, who was making his Match Play debut.
Coming off the worst season of his career, most of that from the crisis in his personal life, Woods does not appear to be making any progress. Through three tournaments this year, he has failed to crack the top 20.
Woods keeps talking about needing more repetition as he works on a new swing, although he is not playing more tournaments. Asked if he might add the Honda Classic, Woods replied, "Probably now is not the time to ask me right now."
He next is likely to play the Cadillac Championship at Doral in two weeks, with Bay Hill two weeks after that. One possibility is the Transitions Championship outside Tampa, Fla., which is the week between Doral and Bay Hill.
It was the second time Bjorn has beaten Woods head-to-head, although not in this format. Ten years ago, they went 72 holes together in the Dubai Desert Classic, with Woods putting his shot into the water on the last hole to make double bogey.
Bjorn was gracious in victory, saying that Woods is not playing "his absolute best right now." although he still saw some good swings.
Others piled on.
When asked about the youth movement in golf, especially after Manassero won his match, Rory McIlroy said all the young players feel they are good enough to compete with the likes of Woods, Mickelson, Stricker and Furyk.
"I mean, I don't think Tiger and Phil have got any ... well, yeah, I mean I don't think Phil has gotten any worse," McIlroy said after his 4-and-2 win over Jonathan Byrd. "Tiger isn't as dominant as he used to be, and Phil won the Masters last year."
Then came a tweet from Hank Haney, the swing coach from whom Woods split a year ago in May.
"For all the talk of Tiger's poor driving the last 6 years I have never seen him drive it out of play with a match or tournament on the line," Haney said on Twitter.
Earlier Wednesday, England's Ian Poulter became the first defending champion in nine years to be eliminated in the first round.
Manassero of Italy made an impressive debut as the youngest player ever at the Accenture Match Play, beating Stricker as the wildest day in golf lived up to its reputation Wednesday.
The 17-year-old Manassero took the lead on the 16th hole when Stricker missed a 6-foot putt, then closed out the American with a 20-foot birdie putt on the next hole for a 2-and-1 victory.
"It's already a big achievement for me," Manassero said. "I'm not expecting that much out of match play because I'm not used to playing match play against such big players. We'll see what happens next round. But here, everybody is very good."
The other two teenagers in the field had a tougher time. Ryo Ishikawa of Japan lost in 20 holes to Charl Schwartzel, while PGA Champion Martin Kaymer already was 5 up through eight holes against Seung-yul Noh.
The first three matches set the tone for the fickle format.
Poulter became the first defending champion in nine years to be eliminated in the first round, despite having difficult remembering any bad shots he hit against Stewart Cink. All he could recall was Cink making one big putt after another -- seven of them from the 6-foot range or longer -- to win in 19 holes.
Cink never led in the match until a 6-iron into 4 feet on No. 1, the first extra hole.
"This is a big win for my confidence because I don't know if there's a tougher player in the field in match play than Ian Poulter," Cink said. "It's a big win for me."
Poulter didn't make a single putt over 5 feet.
"He didn't miss a putt," Poulter said. "That's what you have to do. I did that last year. I didn't this year and got punished for it."
Poulter was stunned that as defending champion he was in the first match of the tournament -- even though the No. 12 seed has led off at the Accenture Match Play ever since it moved to Arizona in 2007 -- and wondered if anyone would be on the course to watch. They were there by the thousands in extra holes, for he and Cink returned to No. 1 ahead of the Woods-Bjorn match.
In the second match, former PGA Champion Y.E. Yang went 20 holes to beat big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros. And right behind them came the most entertaining match of all when Ernie Els outlasted Jeff Overton in 19 holes.
Overton won the first three holes and they halved the fourth with a bogey. Els then ran off five straight holes and appeared to be sailing to a rare, opening-round victory when he let Overton back in the match. Before long, they wound up back on the first tee.
Els put his approach into the bunker, while Overton hit his under a bush in the desert and made double bogey.
"At least I won," Els said. "I have a 90 percent failure rate in extra holes. It was really ugly out there."
Rory McIlroy, who must feel ancient at age 21, never trailed in beating Jonathan Byrd, 4 and 2. McIlroy can appreciate what it's like to play this event as a teenager. He made his debut two years ago, advancing all the way to the quarterfinals.
"I definitely think there's an opportunity for the younger guys to come and show what they've got on tour," McIlroy said. "You feel like you've nothing to lose. Regardless of Tiger of Phil or Steve Stricker or Jim Furyk coming toward the end of their careers, I think the young guys are good enough to compete with them.
"I don't think Tiger and Phil have gotten any ... well, yeah, I mean I don't think Phil hasn't gotten any worse."
It was a subtle dig at Woods, who now has gone 15 months without a winning and was in a scrape with Bjorn.
"I really should have shut the match out, to be honest with you,” said Poulter of his loss to Cink. "Every credit to him. He holed putts at the right time and that's what you have to do in this format. He putted me off the golf course. I missed my chances and therefore I have been punished."
Surprised to be sent out in the very first match, Poulter's interest in the event had ended before Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood had even played a hole. But while Cink is now outside the world's top 50, the American was a quarterfinalist last year, a semifinalist in 2009 and a finalist the season before that.
"It was like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of a round out there for me,” said Cink. “I didn't have much or on the front nine at all, then my putter woke up.
"It needed to be because I would be going home otherwise,” he added. “Neither of us played our very best and I'm just pleased to move on. Ian's a guy I really respect and I drew probably the toughest match in the field."
Donald was the first player into the last 32, thrashing Charley Hoffman 6&5, and he will next play Ryder Cup teammate Edoardo Molinari. Donald's victory threatened to be even more convincing when he took seven of the first 10 holes.
"Charley was not on his A-game," he said. "I was probably 3 or 4 under and I'll take the win, but it was not too hard fortunately."
Molinari came from 2 down after six to beat Scotland’s Martin Laird 3&2, but that was not the biggest turnaround as Els lost the first three holes to Overton but won on the 19th.
There is another all-European Ryder Cup clash in the second round, with Celtic Manor hero Graeme McDowell against Ross Fisher. Both won 4&3, McDowell against Heath Slocum and Fisher against Robert Allenby.
"It was reasonably straightforward," stated U.S. Open champion McDowell, the fifth seed. "Heath didn't have his best day and for a change I played nicely and got the job done."
It was only his second win in six matches at the tournament.
Fisher, in contrast, was a semifinalist two years ago and later that season won golf's other World Match Play tournament in Spain.
"It wasn't flawless, awesome golf, but in match play you don't have to play perfectly and Robert was a little bit off," he said.