All the tension, none of the upsets

Originally Published: February 25, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- John Rollins said all the right things. The 69th-ranked player in the world, winner of one PGA Tour event, didn't cower at the prospect of playing Tiger Woods in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship.

John Rollins
John Rollins was a final-hole blunder away from sending the best player in the world home early.

Rollins won the first hole. He led 2-up through 12. He led 1-up through 16. He stood on the 18th fairway, all square, a sand wedge in his hand, 98 yards from the hole. The specter of 2002, when Woods lost in the first round to Peter O'Malley, hovered over the La Costa Resort and Spa.

That's when it appeared to hit Rollins: Oh my goodness, I might beat Tiger Woods.

Rollins yanked that sand wedge into a back bunker and failed to get up and down. Woods calmly dropped a 15-foot birdie putt and won 1-up. It was the first time he led the match.

The Woods victory captured first-round play Wednesday at La Costa: all the tension that comes with match play, and nearly none of the upsets. Seven of the top eight seeds advanced to the second round, a record in this 6-year-old event.

In fact, only three of the top 16 golfers in the field lost. Oddly enough, all three -- Retief Goosen, Jonathan Kaye and Nick Price -- dropped out of the Ben Hogan bracket. After top seed Mike Weir, the next highest seed in the Hogan bracket was No. 7 Peter Lonard. Were this any other competition, Weir would have a relatively clear path. Match play, however, is as predictable as Robin Williams in concert. You don't know what's going to happen, and if you turn away, you'll miss something.

Asked if he felt fortunate to win, Woods said, "Oh, without a doubt." Woods began his comeback with a par at the 13th hole, when he nearly holed a chip from off the green, and Rollins missed a five-foot par putt. Woods evened the match at No. 17 by sticking an 8-iron from 171 yards within three feet for a conceded birdie. The defending champion said he didn't win the final hole as much as Rollins lost it.

"You know, 17, everyone basically does that," Woods said. "When someone is in there tight and you try to make birdie and you make a mistake, that's acceptable. But I'm sure he feels bad making bogey with a sand wedge on 18."

Woods is scheduled to play Trevor Immelman in the second round Thursday, although with heavy rains predicted, the amount of golf that will be played is anyone's guess. It will be difficult to match the drama of Wednesday. Six matches went to extra holes, with the newly slimmed down Darren Clarke having the stamina to win a 25-hole match over Eduardo Romero. Nine more matches went to the 18th green.

Of the other top seeds, Weir, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, only Love got pushed. He closed out Briny Baird with a birdie at No. 18 to win, 2-up. Love's second-round opponent is one of his closest friends on Tour, Fred Couples, a 3-and-2 winner over Bob Tway. When Love shot a final-round 64 to run away with the Players Championship last year, he played with Couples, and the two kept each other at ease.

Woods spoke Tuesday about the emotional toll that 18-hole matches take, and declared himself mentally exhausted after his close call against Rollins. The Masters may not begin until the back nine on Sunday, but the Match Play can be over by the 14th green on Wednesday.

"Look at how many times Tiger has been the first-round leader at a Tour event that he's won. Very rarely," said Phil Mickelson, a No. 2 seed and a 3-and-1 winner over Lee Westwood. "Anybody on a given day over one round can get hot and win, so that first-round match can be a little unsettling."

Colin Montgomerie stood on the back nine trailing Price, thinking how far he had come to get here Monday and planning to go to Dubai for the next European Tour event. A 25-foot putt for birdie at No. 16 shook him out of his reverie.

"You hole a putt and the whole world seems a different place," said Monty, who came back from 2-down with three to play to beat Price on the 20th hole. Match play often turns into a zero-sum game.

"If something good happens to somebody, it tends to reflect on the other as well, and it tended to reflect on him," Montgomerie said of Price. "He was driving the ball very well and then suddenly missed the fairway on the 17th and therefore, made bogey through that, and then we were all square."

After losing here two years ago, Montgomerie threatened never to return. His victory Wednesday was only his second in five tries in this event. Mickelson, who lives 10 minutes from La Costa, has not advanced past the round of 16 in four attempts. He must beat British Open champion Ben Curtis on Thursday to get that far this year. Stuart Appleby, the No. 7 seed in the Sam Snead bracket and a 5-and-4 winner over No. 10 Justin Rose, kept his nerves at bay by booking a flight home to Orlando for Wednesday night.

"It's negative, but I thought, well, I'd rather call her up and say, 'Book me another day. Book me Thursday,' " Appleby said. "I'm going to call every day and say, 'Book me out, book me out,' until Sunday night."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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