Tiger returns to Match Play with a win
AUSTIN, Texas — Tiger Woods made a successful return to Dell Technologies Match Play with a victory.
Jordan Spieth found some success with a tie.
The most unpredictable tournament in golf began Wednesday with only a few surprises as only four of the top 16 seeds in group play failed to win their opening match at Austin Country Club.
Woods, a three-time winner of this World Golf Championship event, had not played since losing in the opening round in 2013. He had a wild time with Aaron Wise until putting him away on the 17th hole.
“The way we were playing today, we’re very thankful it’s not stroke play,” Woods said with a laugh.
Wise gave away the opening two holes with a double bogey and a bogey. Woods went from 2 up to 1 down around the turn, and then he regained control when Wise missed too many short par putts. Woods closed him out, 3 and 1, when Wise three-putted the par-3 17th.
But it was tough on everyone. A sturdy wind through the trees and valleys, along with some pins set along the mounds on the putting surfaces, made mistakes costly.
Justin Thomas at No. 5 was the only player from the top 10 seeds to lose, falling behind to Lucas Bjerregaard of Denmark, who never gave him much of a chance to get back in the match. It ended on the 16th, when Thomas hit what he thought was a perfect wedge only to see it carom off the flag stick and into the rough.
As usual, there were quick shifts in momentum, and a few big rallies at the end.
One of those belonged to Spieth, and it was badly needed. Spieth, the No. 4 seed in this event last year, is at No. 28 this year. He has not finished better than a tie for 35th in his six tournaments this year, alarming as the Masters nears.
And he was 3-down after just six holes to Billy Horschel.
Spieth managed to square the match with five holes to play when it seemingly fell apart with a tee shot along the banks of the Colorado River that he chopped out into a foot print in the bunker left by a bird. He lost that hole. And then he turned a chance to tie the match into another loss of hole when he three-putted from about 20 feet on the 15th.
Horschel helped the cause by missing a 3-foot par putt on the 16th that would have kept him 2-up with two to play. Spieth took it from there. He made a 6-foot birdie to match Horschel and send it to the 18th, and he lofted a wedge to 2 feet for birdie to win the 18th.
It was only worth a half-point from a match in which he never led, and it’s just one out of three matches in group play.
It felt like more to Spieth.
“To birdie the last two holes is really big for me right now as I’m looking to gain confidence under pressure and kind of test some of the stuff I’ve been working on,” Spieth said. “It feels like you’re battling to try to win a golf tournament on a Saturday or Sunday toward the end of these matches. So it was really cool to hit some clutch shots and pull off a tie there 2-down and three to go.”
Spieth said it was the best he has played under pressure in a while, before catching himself because he hasn’t been in a pressure situation in more than six months.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 seed for the third straight year, had no trouble beating Chez Reavie. Johnson won the Match Play in Austin two years ago. Last year, he didn’t win any of his three matches.
Brooks Koepka was trailing with three holes to go when he won the next two holes to take a 1-up lead to the 18th, only for Tom Lewis of England to birdie the 18th for a halve.
Defending champion Bubba Watson lost his opening match for the first time since he began playing this event in 2011. Watson needed to win the 18th against Kevin Na, but his second shot out of the bunker in front of the green came back down the slope and into his footprint. His next shot, far more difficult, started to come down the hill when he jogged over and picked it up to concede the match.
In the group of major champions, Henrik Stenson got the same result against Phil Mickelson as he did at Royal Troon when he won the 2016 British Open. He won on the 17th hole when Mickelson’s tee shot went over the green, off the rocks and into a hazard. In the other match, Jim Furyk rallied from 3-down to beat Jason Day on the 18th hole.
That kept alive Furyk’s hopes for winning enough this week to move into the top 50 and qualify for the Masters. He wasn’t alone in that regard. Andrew Putnam took a similar step by beating Patrick Reed.
Justin Harding of South Africa, just inside the top 50 and in danger of being passed, was 2-down with three to play against Matt Fitzpatrick when he won the last three holes — two of them with pars — to win the match.
“I definitely feel as though I stole it,” Harding said.