Tiger in a record runaway, but deja vu in Els' return

Updated: February 23, 2006, 12:29 AM ET
Associated Press

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Arms crossed, staring into the soul of his opponent, Tiger Woods looked as though he was wrapped up in one of those nerve-racking moments that define the Match Play Championship.

Far, far from it.

Ruthless to the end until his name was in the record books, Woods won the first nine holes -- seven of them with birdies -- and closed out Stephen Ames as early as mathematically possible, 9 and 8.

"It's been a while since I played one like that," Woods said with a smile.

He didn't have to look far for motivation.

Ames was on the practice range Monday afternoon when he was asked if he would take a carefree attitude into his match against the No. 1 player in the world because not many expected him to win. Ames shook his head.

"Anything can happen," Ames said, breaking into a big smile. "Especially where he's hitting the ball."

Woods apparently took his comments seriously. As he climbed into a van behind the 10th green after halving the hole with pars, he was asked he had seen what Ames said.

"Yes."

Did it motivate him?

"Yes."

Asked if he cared to elaborate, Woods smiled.

"No."

His golf spoke volumes, from an approach into five feet for a birdie that was conceded, to an 18-foot birdie on the second hole that hung on the lip for a few seconds before falling.

Ames never had a chance.

"Tiger played exceptionally well," Ames said. Then he looked over to confer with Woods on how many birdies he made on the front nine and he added with heavy sarcasm, "It was a rough nine for Tiger."

"If he continues playing the way he's playing, he should walk away with this -- easily," Ames said.

Not everything is easy in the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Ernie Els returned to La Costa Resort for the first time in three years and left with a familiar result, losing on the 18th hole to 48-year-old Bernhard Langer. The Big Easy has never made it out of the second round at La Costa.

The other top seeds, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen, had no problem, and Phil Mickelson (No. 5) had to go 18 holes before getting rid of Charles Howell III.

But it was particularly tough for Scott Verplank, who matched the tournament record by going 26 holes before he finally got past Lee Westwood of England.

Verplank spent six hours on the course, and was told that Woods was out there for only two hours.

"I worked three times as hard as him," he said. "I was thinking that if I won today, I'd probably practice a little bit. But I think I already did. So I'm done."

He wasn't alone.

Seven matches went extra holes, breaking by one the record set in the first round two years ago.

Colin Montgomerie was 4 up through eight holes on Niclas Fasth before he started losing holes, not to mention momentum, and the Scot found himself trailing with three holes to play. He caught Fasth on the 16th hole with a par, then put him away with a par on the 23rd hole.

"It doesn't matter what hole, it's nice to win," he said. "Match play is a lottery, a crazy game."

Had this been stroke play, Montgomerie would have shot 77. Then there was Paul Casey, who shot 4-under 68 and is on his way home, a 1-up loser to Henrik Stenson of Sweden.

Els was among three players in the top 10 who failed to advance to the second round. Zach Johnson birdied the last two holes for a 1-up victory over sixth-seeded Jim Furyk, while Carl Pettersson beat 10th-seeded Kenny Perry, 1 up.

After a wild day -- perhaps the most dynamic day in golf all year -- a juggernaut like Woods and a survivor like Verplank had one thing in common.

"We both won," Verplank. "We're playing tomorrow."

Ultimately, that's all they got out of their rounds Wednesday -- a chance to move on, with no guarantees.

Woods is a two-time winner of the Accenture Match Play Championship, but he was knocked out in the second round last year by Nick O'Hern. That might have been enough motivation, until Ames' wisecrack about his driving.

"I don't know if you give the best player in the world any extra incentive to want to beat you," Toms said.

It wasn't the first time for Woods.

Six years ago in the Presidents Cup, Vijay Singh's caddie showed up on the first tee of their singles match with "Tiger Who?" written on the back of his cap. It was a mild prank that Woods took to the extreme, not conceding a putt of any length to Singh and beating him, 2 and 1.

Asked about his reaction to Ames' comments in a press conference, Woods said, "Nine and eight."

The large, white scoreboard behind the 18th green generated a big buzz on a day of sunshine at La Costa as fans walked by and gawked at the sight of Woods building his lead with each hole he played.

"It's not physical, where you go up there and put a shoulder in somebody and take him out," Woods said. "It's about the ability to bear down and pull out quality golf shots on your own, and put an inordinate amount of pressure on you're opponent. That's the only thing you can do in our sport."

That he did. After birdies on his first two holes, he lashed a 3-wood out of the rough into 20 feet for a two-putt birdie on the third, holed an 18-foot birdie on the fourth, hit a magnificent shot over the bunker to 3 feet on the 206-yard fifth hole, and drove to the front of the green on the 328-yard sixth.

By then, Ames began contributing mistakes to fall farther behind.

"The only two holes I didn't birdie on the front nine, he made bogeys," Woods said. "What is the chance of that every happening?"

Given his motivation, odds apparently were pretty good.

It wasn't Woods' biggest blowout. He recalled beating Ted Snavely, 11 and 10, in the finals of the 1994 Pacific Northwest Amateur at Royal Oaks in Vancouver, Wash., although that was a scheduled 36-hole match.

Ames has been through this before, too. The previous record for largest margin at the Match Play Championship was 7 and 6, which had been done seven times. Ames lost to Mark Hensby by that score last year.

"It's the match-play format," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen that day. Vijay or Phil playing that guy, they would have lost, too."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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