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MATCH PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP

Tiger Woods trailing Tim Clark

He falls to 2-down after 12 holes in the second-round match.

February 27, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

MARANA, ARIZ. — It looked nauseating from contact. It screamed wildly right and ricocheted through a brutish array of cactuses and barged to the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Had the rattlesnakes in the hills not slept through February, one might've mistaken it for an egg and eaten it.

This zany tee shot on No. 15 Thursday epitomized Tiger Woods' back-nine inconveniences, quashed the momentum he'd gathered by holing from a greenside bunker on No. 14 and deflated the din he'd created around the Accenture Match Play Championship.

It also gave the loudest hint he would lose to the ruthlessly steady Tim Clark and exit in the second round, and that his noisy return to the PGA Tour after his eight-month absence would stall at two days and 32 holes.

From here, he will go . . .

"To the airport," Woods said after Clark beat him, 4 and 2.

Beyond that, he couldn't be exactly sure.

Just six tee boxes before, he and Clark looked locked in a swell duel that figured to produce some Ritz-Carlton Golf Club theater.

All square after 10 holes, it didn't seem Woods would need to replicate his first-round blitz of J.B. Holmes in 2008, when he rushed from 3-down for his first step to the title.

Yet Clark, a South African ranked No. 33 and 13 days older than Woods, and a six-time runner-up on the PGA Tour (including the 2006 Masters), and Woods' victim in a 5-and-4 mangling in the second round in 2007 when Clark felt unprepared after coming off an injury, had learned to wire his brain properly Woods-wise.

"I think a lot of guys playing with Tiger probably try too hard or think about the fact they're playing with him," he said, "and it's really just a case of realizing that it's just another round of golf."

On Nos. 11 through 13, he hoarded half of his six birdies and snared a 3-up lead, telltale especially because Nos. 11 and 13 are par-fives, which on this planet generally tilt toward Woods. He hit all three greens in regulation while Woods hit none.

He also thought of Holmes, especially after what happened on No. 14, where Woods looked very much like Woods in the drama department, pitching from the bunker with a flawless two-bouncer that trickled squarely into the cup, reducing the deficit to 2-down.

"I figured, well, here we go, it's about to start now," Clark said. "Again, I still calmed myself down."

But then came the would-be snake snack from No. 15, which Woods called one of "two bad shots in two days." It sent him briefly hiking back through the mesquite and prickly pears and saguaros until he learned it had gone out of bounds, grabbed the wood again, flipped his tiger club cover in disgust and trudged miserably to the tee for the retry.

"That was obviously a big break for me," Clark said, even though Woods nailed the ensuing drive on the 343-yard par-four to 32 feet. Clark, heaping on the pressure, played a fine bunker shot to 17 feet, ensuring his two-putt would best Woods' two-putt and make the score 3-up.

When his tee shot on No. 16 obeyed to four feet, all that remained would be Woods gamely trying to chip in from right of the green. Of course, he nearly did, the ball stopping at 13 inches with the line flawless, as Clark claimed "a massive victory" that "isn't a huge surprise" to him given recent form.

That ensured Woods would not join the prominent winners of the second round who must carry the 64-man event from here, including Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, the hottest player of the first two rounds Camilo Villegas, the Northern Ireland 19-year-old sensation Rory McIlroy, and the very nation of England, which sent to the round of 16 Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Ross Fisher and Oliver Wilson.

As only three of the world's top 10 remained -- Mickelson, Ogilvy and Villegas -- the tournament has lost all four of its No. 1-seeded players, including Woods, who fulfilled his trademark capacity to remain No. 1 in locating optimism.

"I hit the ball well the last two days and that's encouraging," Woods said. "Also the way my leg feels, after walking, and especially on this golf course, going up and down the cart paths, especially down the cart paths, my leg feels pretty good."

The pain level: "No pain at all. Zero."

Two days after swooping into the PGA Tour and making things clamorous again, he made off, surely toward a stop on the Florida swing before homing in on the Masters.

He left Clark to a third-round match against a Woods worshiper, young McIlroy.

And he left Clark to say, "Once I knew that I was going to play Tiger, I knew I'd be an underdog, and it's good to look at it that way because it takes the pressure off. It certainly does. That's the reason why I think it's so amazing what he does because he goes out every week as the favorite and he has to perform, so hat's off to what he does."

And he left a ball out there for the snakes to play with, should they get around to waking.

--

chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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