Commentary

Woods proved quick study in match play

Originally Published: February 24, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

He doesn't tell the story very often, so listen up and take notice.

It was about 20 years ago when Tiger Woods was first introduced to golf's original format of match play, born centuries earlier in the fields of Scotland. Competing in the Southern California Junior Match Play against an older kid named James Mohon, the teen phenom was so focused on his score that he didn't realize the dramatic conclusion hadn't turned in his favor.

"I shot 69 that day. Got to the 18th hole and lost," Woods recalled in 2007. "I didn't quite understand that. I just came home and told Dad, 'I don't understand, I shot a better score than he did, but he won the match. That doesn't seem right.' He explained it to me. That was the first time I had ever experienced anything like that before."

So what did he do?

"We went out the next couple days and played match play."

Woods will take that lesson, and many more, into his first-round match against Australian Brendan Jones on Wednesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

As Tiger's career progressed, it's safe to say that by 1991 he had the format pretty well figured out. After earning medalist honors in the stroke-play portion of the U.S. Junior Amateur, he charged through match play, defeating Brad Zwetschke in sudden death to become the tournament's youngest champion in its 44-year history at 15 years, 6 months and 28 days.

Woods still owns that mark, along with virtually every other one in the U.S. Junior Amateur record book. He followed with a victory the next year, needing only 87 holes in six matches, then made it a three-peat at the prestigious event in 1993, becoming the only player to win the title on three separate occasions. No one else has prevailed more than once.

A legend may have been born, but it would only continue to grow.

After double-dipping for a few years, Woods graduated solely to the venerable U.S. Amateur in 1994, only to emulate his previous success. In the final match against Trip Kuehne, he found himself 6-down after just 13 holes of the 36-hole contest. Woods rallied to win six of the last 10 holes to earn a 2-up victory, again becoming the youngest player to claim one of the USGA's crown jewels at 18 years, 7 months and 29 days.

Stop us if you've heard this one before, but Tiger would follow with more trips to the winner's circle.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Rusty Jarrett /AllsportIn 1994, Tiger Woods claimed the first of three straight U.S. Amateur titles.

In 1995, he defeated career amateur Buddy Marucci, 2-up, again coming from behind after 18 holes. And it was more of the same a year later. On the heels of his only NCAA individual championship at Stanford, Woods trailed Steve Scott 5-down at the midway point of the '96 final. No worries. The two-time defending champion came from behind for an unprecedented third consecutive U.S. Amateur title, finally clinching the match on the second extra hole -- the only time he led all day.

"Given the circumstances, this has to be the best I ever played," Woods later said.

Toss in a loss to Gary Wolstenholme in a 1995 Walker Cup singles match, and Woods would conclude his amateur career with a startling, seemingly inconceivable match-play record of 43-4 in USGA events. Three days after that historic victory over Scott, he turned pro … but Woods' aptitude in the format hardly subsided.

Although it was at a stroke-play event, Woods' initial professional victory came at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, in which he drew on those match-play experiences as an amateur to triumph in a sudden-death playoff over Davis Love III. In a dozen instances of extra holes on the PGA Tour, Woods owns an 11-1 record, the only blemish coming at the hands of Billy Mayfair during the 1998 Nissan Open.

Included on that list are three of his 14 career major championship titles. In 2000, relative unknown Bob May took Woods to the limit at the PGA Championship, but a birdie-par-par run in the three-hole aggregate playoff earned Tiger the Wanamaker Trophy for a second straight year. Five years later, he faced Chris DiMarco in a sudden-death contest at the Masters, sealing his fourth green jacket with a 15-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole.

"You know what he's going to do and what he's capable of," DiMarco said afterward. "You have to play your game. If you start concentrating on what he's doing, you're not going to do any good."

Sounds like the blueprint adopted by Rocco Mediate at last year's U.S. Open. Deadlocked after four rounds, Mediate and Woods met for a Monday head-to-head playoff, only to remain tied through 18 holes. Tiger triumphed with a par on the first hole of sudden death, leaving the runner-up with a unique perspective on what it takes to challenge the world's preeminent match-play competitor.

"Playing against him, especially heads-up like this, it's going to be a hard battle," Mediate said. "He's not going to go away. … He's not going to hit his ball in the water. He's more than likely not going to miss the green to the right. He's going to hit a beautiful shot. How you counter that is to play the best you can. And if anybody in this world goes up against Tiger when he's at his best, they are going to lose -- it's just that simple. I don't care who it is."

Although that has been the case in the majority of circumstances, Woods hasn't always come out on the winning end. He owns a 3-1-1 singles record in Ryder Cup play; the only loss came at the hands of Costantino Rocca in his first appearance in 1997. And Woods is 3-2-0 in this format at the Presidents Cup, falling to Mike Weir (2007) and Retief Goosen (2005) in the past two editions of the biennial event.

In Tiger's first start at the HSBC World Match Play Championship in 1998, Woods reached the final and lost to Mark O'Meara 1 Up. In the process, Tiger defeated Ian Woosnam on the 37th hole and Lee Westwood 5 and 4.

The second time around at the HSBC World Match Play Championship, Woods lost 4 and 3 to Shaun Micheel in an opening-round 36-hole match, but he has more than made up for that misstep at the annual WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. In nine previous appearances, Woods has won at least two matches to reach the Sweet 16 on seven occasions. That total consists of titles in three of the past six years, including an 8 and 7 final match thumping over Stewart Cink in 2008.

"He just has such a strong sense of belief in himself that he's just never out of it," Cink said at the time. "He's never going to mess up. He's just always in control. He never loses his composure. He gets mad; that's not what I'm referring to. But he never loses his composure. He always stays very poised, and he doesn't very often throw away a shot. In match play, especially a 36-hole match, you know, if your opponent is not ever really opening the door, then you've got to do something spectacular, and I didn't. I just didn't."

That has been a common refrain for Woods' opponents throughout his career. Just think: Two decades ago, he didn't understand match play. Now it's hard to fathom just how successful he's been.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.