|Woods advances despite constantly struggling. 'Neither one of us had our best stuff out there.' (Getty Images)|
MARANA, Ariz. -- Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green and found a phalanx of friends, adversaries and funny trash talk awaiting him as he ambled across the practice putting area.
Woods had been on the course nearly five hours, trading kicks in the shins with his first-round opponent at the Accenture Match Play Championship, barely surviving a match that was as entertaining as it was sloppy and uneven. Or perhaps specifically because of it.
"Slowpoke," caddie Brett Waldman deadpanned.
Woods, relieved to have merely advanced, laughed and didn't bother denying it.
"When you are hitting it here and here," Woods said, pointing extended arms in both directions, "it takes a long time."
|Accenture Match Play|
Woods was nearly three holes down to Spain's careening Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano at one point, dodged several major bullets, hit a shot left-handed and spent much of the day in the prickly pear and cholla, but somehow gritted his was to a 1-up victory after saving par from the sand on the 18th hole.
"It was the epitome of match play," Woods said.
He was right, though it wasn't so much a case of artistic ebb and flow as it was staunch and cauterize. They chased each other into the desert, missed all sorts of potentially momentum-shifting putts, and left a swath of mangled Mother Nature in their wake.
"Neither one of us had our best stuff out there," Woods sighed, quite accurately.
Remember all the thrust-and-parry from the twosome before the match, about whether the other was "beatable." Turns out they were both right. If they had played nearly any other guy, they might have been tied to a Saguero and left as buzzard bait.
Both players would have posted 1-over 73s, and they mustered a combined two birdies on a back nine that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Sure, it started entertainingly enough, sort of like watching insults being traded on a Married ... With Children rerun.
On the second hole, Woods slashed his tee shot into the native flora, and had to flip over an iron and hit a ball left-handed to get back in the fairway. Had he not made a six-footer on the third, he would have been 3 down. "If there was one day to beat Tiger Woods, this was it," said Fernandez-Castano. "And I didn't take the opportunity ... He played far away from his best."
Woods played far away from the golf course at times, too. At times, it was equal parts riveting and repulsive, like watching some NASCAR guy peeling what was left of his car off the wall at Daytona. A couple of times, it was like they were both determined to give away the match, with both hands, but the other guy was coughing up chunks of lung himself.
Theories quickly surfaced as to why they nicknamed Woods' adversary "Gonzo," and it mostly related to where he was hitting his tee shots. Woods was nearly as wild. On the 10th, after Woods had carved a driver deep into the desert, Gonzo wisely downshifted and pulled a 3-wood to keep the ball in play.
Trouble was, he hit the ball within a few yards of Woods, too, and had to take an unplayable drop when his ball was found squarely in a huge cactus. No worries, because Woods found his ball buried in a creosote bush, and when he took his stance, branches were peeking out between his legs. He chopped out the ball, but it hit squarely in the middle of a Saguaro cactus, and dropped straight down.
"We were both slapping it over there on the left on No. 10, he's taking an unplayable, I'm in the bushes and cactus, or cacti, whatever," Woods said.
OK, so he definitely learned that the plural for cactus is cacti, just on that hole alone. His next shot obliterated a small desert bush and landed in a rocky waste area short of the green, prompting Woods to issue a string of colorfully hyphenated words not fit for public consumption, none of which were "Fernandez-Castano."
By the time the hole was over, the Spaniard had won it with a bogey. Starting on the ninth, Woods played the next three holes in a gag-inducing 4 over, but was lucky only to lose two of the holes.
On the par-5 11th, Gonzo sliced his drive into a flash-flood area and had to hack it out, while Woods had a clean look at the green from 267 yards. He promptly pulled a 5-wood into yet another bush, moved his next shot about three yards, and bogeyed again.
As they bobbed and staggered into the back nine, Gonzo repeatedly had chances to put Woods on his heels, but could not deliver a single clutch putt. He missed an eight-footer on the 13th, and inexcusably left a 15-footer short on the 14th that would have won the hole and put Woods 2 down with four holes to play. After missing his birdie effort, he conceded a three-footer for par to Woods, who missed five putts from five feet in his last competitive round at Pebble Beach.
Fans didn't know whether to cheer or jeer, though most were definitely cheering on the American and openly pulling against the Spaniard, fair or not. At one point, five scantily clad Hooters girls emerged from a hospitality tent and lined up alongside the 14th tee, and a friend snapped a photo just as Woods walked past behind them, actually oblivious to their giggles, jiggles and cleavage.
As for the photo itself, we'll let you write your own caption for that one.
Woods hit one terrific shot down the stretch, driving the green on the 323-yard 15th, where he once lost a match to Tim Clark, for an easy birdie, his first since the eight hole. It also squared the match. Woods took the lead when Gonzo bogeyed the 16th.
Woods had a chance to win the match with a 9-footer on the 17th, and remarkably, blew it four feet past the hole and had to grind out the par putt to keep from giving the hole away. After missing the green from the middle of the 18th fairway, Woods saved par from nine feet at the last and won when Gonzo's birdie effort a moment later missed.
The two had exchanged a laugh about something a moment before they putted on the 18th, though Woods was unable or unwilling to explain the crux of the joke. Maybe they were just glad it didn't go extra holes, which goes double for most of the fans who were watching.
"I had my chances and I didn't take them," Gonzo said. "You can't do that with one of the greatest in history."