Rory and Tiger Falter at the Match Play Championship

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland

Tuesday night, I found myself with a group of fellow writers and assorted vagabonds at a Tucson Steakhouse called Lil Abner’s. It was one of those rustic meat-and-potato joints with long wooden tables, no formal menu, and rusted barn relics hanging on the walls. (If it’s any recommendation, John Daly used to park his bus out back during tournament week and spend every night inside.) Seven men sat at the table to my left. Two of them, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, were famous golfers from Northern Ireland. Four were civilians, agents and caddies. The seventh was a lesser-known quantity — a pudgy 25-year-old Irishman named Shane Lowry, whose claim to fame was winning the Irish Open in 2009, and who sneaked into the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship field because someone else sunk a putt at Pebble Beach two weeks ago. As the 64-seed, lowest in the field, his first-round opponent would be the best golfer in the world, a man with whom he was currently sharing dinner.

At the end of their meal, the seven wrote their names on slips of paper and placed them in an empty glass. When the waitress came by, she drew the names out one by one. They were playing roulette, and the last three names in the glass would be responsible for the bill. McDowell cheered loudly when his name was pulled. The waitress drew another slip. “Rorrrry,” she read, the way you’d coo over a child. The cheers grew louder. “Shane?” she said next. Laughter and more cheers. Consternation from the civilians; none of the golfers would be paying. Two days later, at least one of them would have to lose.

Stories about Lowry in the lead-up to his match with McIlroy carried headlines like “Lowry realistic before Rory McIlroy duel,” and contained details that served to confirm his very unspectacular identity. His clubs went missing, for one, which led to his wonderfully dry quote: “It seems they never made it out of Dublin, which wasn’t ideal.”

But they arrived Monday, and when he walked up the 18th green Thursday, as darkness fell on the Golf Club at Dove Mountain, he was 1 up on his mate Rory, needing only to go up and down from the greenside bunker to become just the fourth 64-seed to win even a single match. (Note: The Match Play Championship shares a format with the NCAA tournament, but results are less predictable; for more on that, read Wednesday’s primer.) Rory almost stunned him by sinking his own bunker shot, but it came up inches short, and when Lowry finished his sand save with a 4-foot putt, he’d completed the upset.

Past the green, outside the ropes, the fans were loud for the underdog, and a group of supporters chanted “Ui Faile!” (An Irish writer helped me out with that one — it’s Gaelic for “Offaly,” which is Lowry’s home county.) In his on-camera interview with the Golf Channel, his surprised smile belied his words: “Deep down I knew I could beat him,” he said. “I’m not here for no reason. I’m not here to make up the numbers.”

While we watched the upset on no. 18, we heard the groans and cheers coming from two holes behind, where Charles Howell III was giving Tiger Woods everything he could handle. The last scoreboard update I saw had Howell up two holes with two to play, putting Tiger on the brink of defeat. A woman with a headset told me that the rest of the matches had been called because of darkness, and that Tiger and Howell would resume at no. 17 early Friday morning. As it happened, she was wrong — they had played no. 17, and Howell had won the match — and that little bit of misinformation almost led to the most embarrassing moment of my young journalism career.

After the fanfare on the 18th died down, we made our way up to the clubhouse, where the players coming off the course would be holding brief press conferences outdoors, and I decided I wanted to ask a question. I had it prepared, and I thought it was at least mildly interesting: “Tiger, does it help you that Howell has to go home tonight and think about playing those last two holes in the morning?”

As you see, I still hadn’t figured out that he’d actually lost. As he gave his opening remarks, I thought he was taking an oddly defeatist tone, but I had a one-track mind. And now, as I write, I’m laughing to myself, thinking about what Tiger would have said to the sincere idiot with a notebook who didn’t realize he’d been defeated. Or what the other reporters might have done. Or whether I would have quit my job on the spot and taken my rental car a few hours south to Mexico, never to show my face in El Norte again. Only the persistent questioning of another reporter saved me from humiliation. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and finally I realized what I’d just been spared.

Speaking of Tiger, here’s why match play can break your heart — he didn’t make a single bogey, and the way he played would have been good enough to beat almost anyone else in the field besides Howell.

The most interesting hole of the day, and the one that showcased the endless strategies of match play and how momentum can vacillate by subtle degrees in a single hole, came on no. 18 in the match between Lee Westwood and Rafael Cabrera-Bello. Westwood held a one-up lead going into the last hole, and he had honors off the tee, meaning he would hit first. The 18th is a 480-yard par-4, long and very difficult to birdie, so it was no surprise when Westwood hit a 3-wood off the tee rather than his driver. His idea was that a wood is easier to hit straight, and by putting it in the middle of the fairway, he could put all the pressure on his opponent; after all, a par would almost certainly be good enough to win the match. His shot was perfectly straight, if short. Advantage Westwood.

It was also no surprise that Cabrera-Bello took out his driver. He’s the one who needed to win the hole, and the extra length would give him an easier approach shot. He couldn’t afford to match Westwood’s conservative strategy. But his shot veered a bit to the right, landing in a fairway bunker. Westwood’s ploy had paid off, and his advantage had just widened.

But hitting a wood off the tee, which he probably wouldn’t have done on such a long hole in stroke play, came with a sacrifice in the form of a longer iron approach to the green. It came up just short and rolled off the front into a little valley below the hole. His chokehold on the hole loosened just a bit, and Cabrera-Bello put his bunker shot on the green about 30 feet behind the hole.

Westwood was still farther away, so his pitch was next. It was a good shot, but not a great one, landing 6 feet from the cup. That left Cabrera-Bello with two choices on his long, downhill putt.

1. Lag it close, as you would in a stroke play event, and take the chance that Westwood would miss his 6-footer, a distance from which his rate of success is well over 50 percent.

2. Hit the putt hard to avoid coming up short, believing you have to make it to win the hole and extend the match, but realizing that if you miss, the ball will roll off the green and the match will be over.

I thought he’d probably side with approach no. 2, but Cabrera-Bello went with the lag, hitting a beautiful putt that stopped just shy of the hole. That left Westwood with his 6-footer to win the match, and I thought Cabrera-Bello had been too conservative. I was wrong — Westwood missed the putt, Cabrera-Bello made his par, and the match went to extras.

Cabrera-Bello hit a spectacular iron on the first playoff hole and followed that by draining his birdie putt to win the match and send Westwood home. On the green, I asked him about the putt on no. 18. “I expected you to just drill it,” I said.

He shook his head, and gave me a disarmingly simple explanation for a choice that took some bravery, since it left his fate in Westwood’s hands. “Don’t make a silly putt there,” he said. “That putt has three different breaks, almost impossible. It’s easier for him to miss than for me to make.”

I decided to experience the wild first round of the Match Play Championship by seeing as many finishes as I could, and the adventure began Thursday afternoon with what became the strangest match of all. When Wednesday’s sudden snowstorm hit, suspending play for the day, Sergio Garcia was standing over a 12-foot putt on no. 16 that would have won his match against Thongchai Jaidee. He had all night to think about that putt, and when play resumed, he resolved to give it a firm stroke and try to end things then and there. Jaidee watched, having spent a night wondering if he would even attempt a single shot when he returned to the course.

Garcia missed, and then he missed the short comeback for a three-putt. Instead of winning, or at least being up two holes with two to play, his lead had narrowed to one. Jaidee then hit a spectacular iron on 18 to tie the match and force extra holes. On the first playoff hole, he had a 10-footer that looked good all the way but rimmed out at the last moment. That was his last chance; Sergio shut the door a hole later, having averted disaster. The ebbs, the flows.

Despite the win, Garcia remained his usual negative self. He wasn’t impolite in his interviews, but he was definitely dour. As he walked to the vehicle that would take him back to the clubhouse, I started to ask him what was going through his mind when he walked off 16 after the three-putt. Just as I began to speak, I was swept aside by a phalanx of cops and rabid children, and Patrick Finley of the Arizona Daily Star asked the question on my behalf.

“You don’t really want to know what I was thinking,” Garcia said. OK, well … how did you turn the corner? “I’m not sure that I did.”

On Wednesday, before Mother Nature attempted to destroy the golf course, I spent most of the morning following Ian Poulter. I think he’s the most fascinating modern player, a mixture of humor and intensity and bizarre clothing. For the first round, he wore windpants that were gray in front and plaid in back (a conservative look, by his standards), and the trademark King Cobra visor framing a blond faux-hawk. His game was rough, but he was typically intense, ready to attack the course. His opponent, Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher, hit a better drive on seven of the first eight holes, and yet Poulter was 2 up when the dust settled. He escaped from desert, from bunkers, from rough. And while his short game was spectacular, Gallacher’s was sordid. On no. 8, he actually hit a shot from a stony ditch that went backward, and as he stumbled out from the ravine, he looked at a smiling Poulter and said, “I think we’ll just keep walking.” (Nobody showed any interest in retrieving the ball as they passed by on the way to the ninth, so now I have a souvenir.)

On no. 11, the second-to-last hole they’d play, Poulter found his ball “oscillating” (PGA referee’s words) on top of a stone that lay under a desert shrub. He realized he had to play it to have a shot at salvaging the hole, and he took a swing that sent it skidding out toward the green. He would halve the hole, and beat Gallacher 2-and-1 on Thursday, but at the moment his caddy was concerned that the club might have hit the rock.

“Didn’t even graze it,” said Poulter. The crowd laughed, wondering if this arrogance was a put-on, but he just stared straight ahead. An hour later, Peter Hanson helped his Ryder Cup teammate loosen up; he hit him with a well-aimed snowball.

Tiger is gone, Rory is gone, and the field is almost down to 32. It made for great first-round drama, but now the TV people, as well as casual fans, will be upset that the two biggest draws have departed. But Luke Donald made the clutch putts they could not, and Bubba Watson clinched his win with a beautiful iron to within a foot at 17, and Justin Rose hit a long putt at 15 that mimicked his Ryder Cup heroics and paved his way to Round 2, and Shane Lowry is just a round away from meeting his other dinner partner, Graeme McDowell, who beat Padraig Harrington just as I realized that Harrington toddles side to side when he walks, like a wind-up toy …

And as long as we still have Poulter, this tournament will entertain.

Filed Under: Golf, Shane Ryan, Tiger Woods