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Woods Has Early Checkout

After five wins, he is stunned by Micheel in the first round of Match Play Championship.

September 15, 2006|Chuck Culpepper | Times Staff Writer

VIRGINIA WATER, England — Near the end of a Tiger Woods summer so dazzling it has verged on hypnotic, the idea of Woods losing a 36-hole match-play first-rounder seemed about as likely as Woods declaring bankruptcy.

So as his last 15-foot putt rolled disobediently to nowhere on the 15th green at Wentworth Club on Thursday, some weirdness took hold.

As Woods abruptly turned away to congratulate the No. 77 player in the world on thumping Woods, 4 and 3, the golf ball still rolled.

When a BBC greenside interviewer suggested that "cynics" might suggest Woods didn't try his hardest, Woods rebutted, "Obviously they don't know me very well, do they?"

While hordes of Britons trudged toward home along the three vacant closing holes, here and there people muttered into mobile phones, "A shock," or, "I don't know what to do with those three tickets for Sunday."

And after the most farfetched quarterfinalist in the 16-man HSBC World Match Play field reached the interview tent, Shaun Micheel said, "I had a nice day."

A day spent leading Woods for the last 30 holes pretty much rocketed to second on the Micheel golf-history dossier. Best-known for a seven-iron shot that traveled 175 yards from the first cut of rough to within two inches of the cup and clinched the 2003 PGA Championship from a then-ranking of No. 169, Micheel thereafter missed seven major cuts in a row, 10 cuts this year.

He finished second in the PGA last month, but Woods' shadow occluded that plus everything else. He didn't qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team and twice explained Thursday that he didn't deserve it, so will spend next week at the San Antonio tour stop.

It's part of his goal of wedging into the top 30 by year's end. Age 37, he has one win in 250 PGA Tour starts.

So he sort of fretted. "I'm going to have all my doors locked here," he said. "They're not going to be too happy with me. I'm not comfortable in concrete shoes."

By "they," he meant the World Match Play organizers, who dole out golf's richest first prize ($1.85 million) but head to their quarterfinals all Woods-less -- as well as Jim Furyk-less and Ernie Els-less, both of whom lost Thursday, Furyk to Robert Karlsson, 6 and 4, and Els to Angel Cabrera, 2 and 1.

Or he meant the multitudes in Britain's golf economy, whose anticipated inflation from Woods' three-week stay on the Isles took on a deflation of three days of Woods' musical effect on cash registers.

Or he could've meant sports reporters, who now must strain to explain that while Woods' celestial five-tournament win streak has ended, his other-worldly five-tournament PGA Tour win streak still could bloat to six in two weeks' time at the American Express World Golf Championships northwest of London.

With the Ryder Cup one week off, it's today and Saturday and Sunday he couldn't quite plan.

"I don't know," Woods said. "That's a good question. Right now I'm probably going to go work out and get some of this frustration out and see what happens."

When Micheel's lead eroded from 4 up with 19 holes to play to 1 up with 16 holes to play, when he started the afternoon round in the fairway bunker, when Woods made birdie at No. 2, a gallery of hooky-players and truancy cases clearly assumed Woods' Friday would be all booked, opposite Englishman Luke Donald.

Yet in a genuine golf oddity circa 2006, the second-lowest-ranked player among the 16 lost no more holes to the man who won the British Open and everything else. Faced with the scariest thing known to golf -- Woods, charging -- Micheel not only preserved his lead but extended it.

He kept standing in fairways hitting approach shots that landed on greens and sustained his momentum. Then Woods kept standing on greens measuring putts from 15, 20, 25 feet, then seeing every one miss.

"Well, it's easy to read when you have good pace," Woods said. "I didn't have very good pace today. It just made for a little more of a difficult day."

Micheel's birdies at No. 4 and No. 7 left him 3 up at the 27-hole turn, his fine pitch from sand on No. 11 solved his only waywardness, and his eagle on No. 12 put him 4 up with six to play.

"I did something different today," he said of match play. "I just told myself on every putt that he had that he was going to make the putt."

It almost never came true. Having anticipated a day strewn with patented Woods fist pumps, Micheel kept marveling that he saw almost no fist pumps.

He just saw the author of a phenomenal recent golf stretch, suddenly standing on No. 15 after Micheel's par, needing to fix his putting immediately or else. Woods struck the 15-footer, found it hopeless at once, removed his cap, walked to Micheel with the ball rolling and said, "Congratulations. Well played."

Then they stood together for an interview in which Woods said, "I don't know what person is excited when they lost," and Micheel said, "I finish second to him more times than he'll ever finish second to me," and Woods gave about a quarter-smile.

It all looked pretty weird.

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