Tiger Woods took advantage of the uneven play by the youngest competitor in the field to win his opening match Wednesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas.
Playing in his first Match Play event since 2013, Woods beat 22-year-old Aaron Wise in a match that featured few stellar shots but plenty of momentum swings. Woods build a 2-up lead after two holes, but was unable to keep his foot on the gas and found himself trailing by a hole after the 10th.
With neither player executing consistently, Woods was able to get back to all-square with a par on the next hole. He then won three of the next five to close out his record-extending 64th Match Play event. That keeps him in control of his own destiny in the round-robin format, but Woods knows he’ll have to play better over the next two days to advance out of Group 13.
“I’ve played a lot of matches over the years, and this is definitely one of the most emotional matches,” Woods told the Golf Channel after securing his win when Wise three-putted the 17th hole. “I was up early, then I’m down, then I’m up. There was just a lot of ebb and flow to this match. It wasn’t as though we were both playing great golf, but somehow I came out with the win.”
While Wise will need to win his final two matches and get some help in order to advance, Woods is still in the driver’s seat. He received another gift when Brandt Snedeker birdied the 18th hole to halve the other Group 13 match against Patrick Cantlay.
“We weren’t playing that great today, we were both struggling a little bit,” Woods acknowledged. “If it was a stroke play event, we’d be pretty far behind. But in stroke play it’s beating the guy in front of you, and that was about it and I was able to advance.”
Several top seeds struggle
Several other favored players would have loved to have squeaked out a win with less than their “A” games Thursday.
No. 5 seed Justin Thomas was a 3&2 loser to Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard (No. 50), No. 9 Xander Schauffele escaped No. 2 Lee Westwood 1-up, No. 52 Jim Furyk came from behind to upset Australia’s Jason Day (No. 12) 2-up and defending champ Bubba Watson lost to No. 57 in a bizarre turn of events.
All square on the 18th tee box, Watson was a bad hop away from driving the green. Instead, he wound up in a green-side bunker while Na opted to hit iron off the tee. Na found the green with his approach, while Watson’s first attempt failed to get out of the bunker. With his second attempt heading for the same result, Watson picked the rolling ball up on his feet, conceding a match he appeared to have control of at 2-up through 12 holes.
“I wasn’t playing that bad, the putts just weren’t falling,” Na told the Golf Channel. “Anytime you beat a two-time match (play) champion it’s a great feeling. Bubba is the defending champion, he’s a great player, and we’re good buddies.”
Rory, Rahm, Casey make quick work
Meanwhile, most of those who entered in strong form continued their momentum Thursday.
Coming off his victory at The Players two weeks ago, fourth-seeded Rory McIlroy closed out Luke List (64) 5&4. Spain’s Jon Rahm was even more convincing in his 7&5 win over South Korea’s Si Woo Kim (54)
“I think it was a combination of I rode my luck a little bit,” said McIlroy. “At times I hit some loose shots, but I somehow got away with most of them. Luke would admit he didn’t play he best stuff, but I played well. He let me away on a couple of holes, but to birdie 13 and 14 to close the match out was nice.”
No. 2 Justin Rose was a 2&1 winner over Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo (53), Bryson DeChambeau handled Scotland’s Russell Knox (59) 3&1 and Italy’s seventh-seeded Francesco Molinari dominated Japan’s Satoshi Kodaira (63) 5&4.
Also continuing his strong play was England’s Paul Casey, the No. 10 seed saving some much-needed energy by beating Mexico’s Abraham Ancer (58) 5&3 just three days after winning the Valspar Championship.
“There’s a lot,” Casey said when asked by the Golf Channel about his confidence level. “We’re trying to manage the energy level as well. The victory was great on Sunday. But then that short window to try to get ready for this on Wednesday … we’ve been trying to manage the energy.
“I’ve been fatigued the past few days, so today was really, really good. Actually one of the better rounds of golf I’ve ever played around this golf course, so form and confidence are fine.”
Countryman Ian Poulter was able to exercise some demons with his 2&1 win over Kevin Kisner. It was a loss to Kisner in this event last year that prevented Poulter from reaching the quarterfinals and secure a spot in the Masters. Meanwhile, Kisner went on to lose to Watson in the final match.
“It was painful, I wasn’t going to roll over like last year,” Poulter told the Golf Channel. “I knew that coming out this morning, and perhaps he wouldn’t he knew I wouldn’t be that easy as what the match turned out to be last year. I played very well today.
“I know winning your first match is really important, winning every match is really important. Today was really important to come out strong and do whatever you need to do.”
NOTES: Woods is playing his first tournament in the state of Texas since the AT&T Byron Nelson in 2005, and his first WGC event since 2013. … The winners from each of the 16 groups will move on to the single-elimination weekend rounds. … Rickie Fowler and Australia’s Adam Scott are the only eligible players who chose not to compete this week. .
–Derek Harper (@DerekAHarper), Field Level Media