MARANA, Ariz. >> Different month, different desert, same shocking outcome.
Any thoughts of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods going head-to-head late Sunday afternoon came crashing down under darkening skies in the high desert of Dove Mountain. Just like the last time they got together in Abu Dhabi to start the season, they didn’t even make it to the weekend.
The Match Play Championship was even worse. They didn’t make it out of the first round.
“It happens,” Woods said. “It’s the nature of the format. You’ve just got to beat the guy you’re playing against, and I didn’t do that today. Chucky won the match.”
That would be Charles Howell III, who says he has never beaten Woods in any match and picked a fine time to end that streak.
Doing his best Tiger impersonation, the match was all square when Howell nearly holed out with a wedge for birdie on the 15th, and then drained a 25-foot birdie putt on the 16th, going 2 up when Woods missed a 12-foot birdie.
The match ended in pars on the next hole.
Just moments earlier, in a sloppy match with an old friend, McIlroy had one last chance to avoid losing to Shane Lowry when the portly Irishman went bunker-to-bunker on the 18th hole. McIlroy, from the middle of the fairway, hit yet another poor iron shot into the sand and Lowry closed him out by saving par with a nervy 4-foot putt.
“It’s definitely a day I’m going to remember,” Lowry said.
McIlroy became the third No. 1 seed in the last four years to lose in the opening round. Woods has yet to make it out of the second round of golf’s most unpredictable tournament since he won at Dove Mountain in 2008.
It was only the second time in the 15-year history of this World Golf Championship that the top two seeds were gone after one day. Woods and Phil Mickelson lost in 2002 when it was at La Costa.
Woods and McIlroy losing in the first round just minutes apart?
Not many would have given that a snowball’s chance in the high desert. It capped off a wild opening round, stopped on Wednesday because of a freakish snowstorm that covered The Ritz-Carlton Club in 2 inches of snow.
And those two stars getting knocked out wasn’t even the half of it.
Sergio Garcia returned Thursday to face a 12-foot birdie putt to win his match. Five holes and 19 shots later, he finally put away Thongchai Jaidee in 20 holes. Their match ended just more than 30 hours after it began.
Bo Van Pelt hit only two shots Thursday — an 8-iron and a 45-foot lag putt — to finish off John Senden.
This tournament already is so strange that it will take three days to complete the opening round. Carl Pettersson was 1 up over Rickie Fowler with one hole left, and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Francesco Molinari were all square with three holes to play. Both chose to return Friday because it was too dark.
McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, built a 2-up lead early in the match until Lowry rallied and grabbed the momentum by chipping in for birdie on the par-5 11th to avoid falling behind, chipping in from behind the 12th green for birdie and then ripping a fairway metal to within a few feet for a conceded eagle on the 13th to go 2 up.
Lowry missed a short par putt on the 14th, only for McIlroy to give away the next hole with a tee shot into the desert and a bunker shot that flew over the 15th green and into a cactus. But the two-time major champion hung tough, coming up with a clutch birdie on the 16th to stay in the game.
McIlroy nearly holed his bunker on the 18th, and Lowry followed with a steady shot out to 4 feet and calmly sank the putt.
“Deep down, I knew I could beat him,” Lowry said. “There’s a reason I’m here, and this is match play.”
For McIlroy, more questions are sure to follow him to Florida for his road to the Masters. He now has played only 54 holes in the first two months of the season, missing the cut in Abu Dhabi and losing in the first round at Dove Mountain.
“You want to try and get as far as you can, but I guess that’s match play,” McIlroy said. “I probably would have lost by more if I had played someone else in the field. It wasn’t a great quality match. But it would have been nice to get through and just get another day here and another competitive round under my belt.”
Luke Donald nearly made it the top three seeds except for a clutch performance. He holed a 10-foot birdie putt to halve the 17th hole and stay tied with Marcel Siem of Germany. Donald then birdied the 18th from 7 feet to win the match.
Louis Oosthuizen, the No. 4 seed, rallied to get past Richie Ramsay of Scotland.
The opening round was halted Wednesday after 3½ hours because of the snowstorm. It continued to snow at times overnight, and it took nearly five hours to clear snow from the golf course for the tournament to resume.
Turns out, snow wasn’t the only surprise.
“I had to play extremely well to have a chance, and I still kept waiting for that Tiger moment,” Howell said.
It never came.
Woods missed short birdie chances at the 10th and 11th, but the real damage came on the 15th when he went long of the green with a wedge in hand. Howell also missed a pair of short putts on the back nine, but he came up big with the putt on the 16th.
“Really, I didn’t even realize I was 2 up with two to go until I got right to the tee on 17, and it actually threw me for a bit because I never maybe was really in the moment and didn’t quite realize how things were,” Howell said. “And as far as beating Tiger Woods, it shows you that match play is crazy. I did have to play a good round. But yeah, it’s a bit hard to believe I’m sitting here today.”