By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006
CARLSBAD, Calif., Feb. 22 -- It's never a good idea to provoke Tiger Woods, even with a seemingly innocent remark.
Stephen Ames learned that lesson the hardest way possible on Wednesday, absorbing a 9-and-8 first-round drubbing, the worst loss in the eight-year history of the World Match Play Championship at La Costa.
On Tuesday, Ames, the lowest-seeded player in the elite 64-man event, told reporters that, "anything can happen, especially where he's hitting the ball," referring to Woods's recently somewhat erratic driving.
But five days after Woods withdrew from the Nissan Open in Los Angeles because of the flu, there clearly were no questions about the state of his health or the competitive fire in his belly. Woods began this cool, crystalline day with birdies on his first six holes and seven on his front nine, winning every hole for a 9-up lead at the turn and closing out the match on the 10th, where both men made routine pars.
Afterward, Woods smiled ever so slightly and said he had been aware of Ames' comment. When someone wondered about his reaction to it, the smile was gone when he answered, "9 and 8."
Did Ames' remarks light a fire under him?
"You might say that," Woods added. "As I said, 9 and 8."
Woods's ruthless response was reminiscent of his remarks at the 2000 Presidents Cup after he beat Vijay Singh in the singles competition the day Singh's caddie wore a hat that read, "Tiger Who?" Asked that afternoon about the caddie's cap, Woods would only say "2 and 1," the final score of his victory over Singh at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in the Washington suburbs.
Still, there was no sign of any animosity between Woods and Ames when they shook hands at the start of play on the first tee or when they exchanged handshakes again on the 10th green when the match ended.
"I said, 'Good playing and good luck for the rest of the week,' " said Ames, a native of Trinidad now living in Canada. "I caught a player who was 7-under after nine holes. If Vijay or Phil [Mickelson] had played that guy today, they'd have lost, too. . . . If he continues playing the way he's playing, he should walk away with this."
Woods, now 22-4 in this event, will next face Australian Robert Allenby, a 3-and-2 winner over K.J. Choi, in the round of 32 Thursday. Singh, the No. 2 seed, also advanced easily with a 5-and-4 victory over Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland; third-seeded Retief Goosen of South Africa moved on with a 5-and-4 triumph over England's Paul Broadhurst, and fifth-seeded Phil Mickelson birdied the 18th hole to close out a 2-up victory over Charles Howell III.
The opening round, unlike many years past, was generally devoid of major upsets, though No. 3 seed Ernie Els lost to No. 61 Bernhard Langer of Germany by a 1-up margin when he missed a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole. Els has advanced past the second round only once in his six appearances, with three first-round losses, and he has made no secret of his disdain for the course. Last year, he skipped the tournament, and he'll likely be leading the cheers when the venue is moved to Tucson next year.
Woods said this week he will miss La Costa, despite the tournament's history of heavy rain and less than ideal playing conditions. He won the Mercedes Championship here in 1997 and the Match Play in 2003 and 2004, with a runner-up finish in 2000 and $3 million in earnings in his six previous appearances.
If he continues the sort of torrid pace he exhibited against Ames on Wednesday, another $1.3 million champion's check could be added to that total. In his opening round, Woods hit all 10 greens in regulation, and needed only 14 putts. His first hole was a conceded birdie, but he dropped his ball where he'd hit his second shot and casually knocked in the six-footer, just for practice.
Ames had to know this was not going to be his day at the 210-yard second hole. He knocked a 30-foot chip to a conceded tap-in par, only to watch Woods make his longest putt of the day, an 18-footer, for birdie. The ball hung on the lip for several seconds before a slight puff of wind coaxed it into the cup, and all Ames could do was smile as he walked to the third tee, 2-down 20 minutes into the match.
Then it just kept getting worse. At the 575-yard No. 3, Woods hit an errant drive into the left rough, with Ames in the middle of the fairway.
But Woods's second shot with a fairway wood trickled up the neck and stopped 18 feet from the pin. Ames's second shot clipped a branch on the right side and left him short of the green, and his third shot stopped 20 feet from the flag. Woods two-putted for birdie, Ames missed his birdie try, and the rout was on.
Woods even piled on a bit. He constantly outdrove Ames by 40 to 50 yards, and at the 378-yard No. 6, Woods tried to drive the green despite a slight breeze in his face. He nearly pulled it off, leaving himself a 30-yard chip to within five feet, and of course he made that putt for his sixth consecutive birdie, talking a 6-up lead when Ames missed his own six-footer for birdie.
"It's not physical where you go up there and put a shoulder in somebody and take them out," Woods said afterward. "It's about the ability to bear down and pull out quality golf shots on your own, and you go put an inordinate amount of pressure on your opponent. That's the only thing you can do in our sport."
Like he said, 9 and 8.