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Woods Staves Off Challenge

phil mickelson - match play championship
Phil Mickelson, coming off a victory at Pebble Beach and fresh off a playoff loss at Riviera, was surprised to see the pins tucked on the corners, especially on smooth greens that dropped off at the edges. "I thought they were ridiculous." (AP)

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By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2007

MARANA, Ariz., Feb. 21 -- This was no stroll through the cactus in the dusty desert for Tiger Woods in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship on Wednesday. His U.S. Ryder Cup teammate, J.J. Henry, was only one hole down with seven to play, but Woods birdied two of the next three -- nearly acing the 192-yard 14th -- and eventually advanced to the round of 32 with a 3-and-2 victory at the breezy Gallery Golf Club at Dove Mountain.

Woods is attempting to win his eighth straight event on the PGA Tour, the second-longest streak in history to Byron Nelson's 11 in a row in 1945.

He'll face a formidable foe Thursday in South African Tim Clark, who eliminated Australian Robert Allenby, 2 and 1. Clark won two matches for the international side in the 2005 Presidents Cup and also was runner-up to Phil Mickelson at last year's Masters.

Two down after four holes, Mickelson rallied for a 1-up victory against fellow left-hander Richard Green on Wednesday and was rather relieved to have survived the first round. He has fond memories of this arid area, where he won his first PGA Tour event as a 21-year-old amateur in the 1991 Northern Telecom Open and said he was thrilled the PGA Tour was back in town again because "I love Tucson."

Mickelson, with a win and a runner-up finish in his last two starts, also played down a short session he had with prominent swing doctor Butch Harmon on the practice range here Tuesday. Mickelson's regular teacher, Rick Smith, did not come to the event, and Mickelson asked Harmon, Woods's former coach, to look at his swing with the driver and his recent inability to consistently fade the ball off the tee.

Mickelson said he preferred not to comment Wednesday, saying only that he and Harmon have "been friends for a number of years" and dismissing any speculation he may be thinking about changing instructors. Golf World magazine's Web site quoted Smith as saying: "I've got zero issues with it. . . . Nothing's up."

Ernie Els continued to have plenty of issues with this tournament. Ranked fifth in the world, Els made yet another early exit from an event he grew to loathe when it was played at La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif. The venue has changed this year, but there was more of the same disaster for Els, eliminated Wednesday by obscure Welshman Bradley Dredge by a 4-and-2 margin.

Els has made seven appearances in this World Golf Championship event and been knocked out in the first round four times, including his last three. He was so frustrated at one point with what he considered a sub-par La Costa course, he skipped the tournament in 2004 and 2005, and when he came back last year, he lost in the first round to Bernhard Langer.

Normally a charming fellow in the media tent, Els declined to speak with several reporters and tournament public relations officials after his round on Wednesday. He missed four putts inside 10 feet during the match, including a three-footer for par at the 635-yard fifth hole after bombing two shots just short of the green. Els had only one birdie on his card all day, and afterward Dredge said he sensed he had a chance to pull the upset after Els made bogey at the drivable 357-yard No. 7.

"All of a sudden you're thinking he doesn't look quite as sharp as perhaps he normally is," Dredge said. "You expect him to play great all the time. . . . You don't get to play match play very often, play Ernie Els the first round and manage to knock him out. It's pretty special, that."

It was also a special day for Stephen Ames. A year ago, the man from Trinidad and Tobago suffered the worst loss in this event's history when Woods eliminated him by a 9-and-8 margin in the opening round. A dozen months later, he posted this day's most lopsided victory when he eliminated Sweden's Robert Karlsson, 8 and 7. Ames had birdies on seven of his 11 holes and Karlsson had only one his card all day.

"I actually just called my wife," Ames said. "She goes, 'How did you do?' I said, 'Finished.' She said, 'You're done?' Yeah, I played 11 holes . . . I won't be coming home tonight. It's nice to be out of Carlsbad. I saw the ball going in the hole for a change rather than bouncing."

Did he empathize with Karlsson after his own humiliation a year ago?

"I did, yeah," he said. "As the day went on, we chitchatted. We talked about the families and how his kids were. It was a relaxing, comfortable day."

And was there any chitchat with Woods last year?

"No comment."

Woods yapped amiably with his first-round foe as they made their way around this windblown desert course. In only his second PGA Tour event of the season, he said he "played all right . . . hit a couple of loose shots here and there, but overall I felt like I was consistent enough to put pressure on him most of the day.

"It was actually a pretty tight match. J.J. hit a lot of beautiful putts in the middle of the round and even on the back nine, and they just didn't go in. Had they gone in, it might have been a different story. Fun match. J.J. is a great guy, and we had a bunch of fun out there."

Woods finally took control at the 362-yard 12th hole, where he drilled a 3-wood 310 yards off the tee, chipped to 2 1/2 feet and birdied the hole. When Henry missed a 15-footer for birdie, Woods opened a 2-up lead. He stretched it to 3 up at the 192-yard 14th, where his 8-iron stopped a foot from the cup for a conceded birdie. When Henry missed a 15-footer in an attempt to halve the hole, the margin was 3 up with four to play, and Henry could never recover against the tournament's No. 1 seed.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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