Top-seeded Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were knocked out in the first round of the Match Play Championship on Thursday. Not many would have given that a snowball’s chance in the desert.
Almost as surprising as the freakish snowstorm on Dove Mountain, near Tucson, Ariz., was the sight of golf’s two biggest stars heading to the airport, only the second time in the 15-year history of this wild tournament that No. 1 and No. 2 didn’t last more than a day.
Shane Lowry of Ireland chipped in twice and drilled a fairway metal to 3 feet to seize control, and then knocked out McIlroy with a bunker shot to 4 feet to save par on the final hole.
Just as the shock was wearing off, Charles Howell III came up with kind of shots he’s used to seeing from Woods in the clutch — a wedge that stopped inches from the cup on the 15th hole, and a 25-foot birdie on the 16th that carried him to a 2-and-1 victory.
“It’s definitely a day I’m going to remember,” said Lowry, the third player in the past four years to eliminate a No. 1 seed in the opening round.
“I had nothing to lose,” Howell said.
The biggest loser might have been NBC Sports, which lost it top two draws.
Howell had not faced Woods in match play since he was 17 and lost to him in the third round of the 1996 U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland. He said he had never beaten him even in the dozens of casual games they played over the years at Isleworth before Woods moved to south Florida.
What a time to change that losing streak.
Howell, who qualified for this World Golf Championship for the first time in five years, played a fabulous round in cold conditions. They matched scores 10 times in 14 holes before Howell came through with back-to-back birdies.
“In this format, match play is crazy,” Howell said. “He’s Tiger Woods. I was lucky to hang in there.”
The final matches were played in near darkness, and they could have stopped after 15 holes. Woods wanted to play on, even though Howell had the momentum. Woods was 2 under for the day, and neither of them made a bogey.
“We both played well,” Woods said. “He made a couple of more birdies than I did. He played well, and he’s advancing.”
McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 player, had a 2-up lead early until Lowry rallied and grabbed the momentum by chipping in for birdie on the par-5 11th, chipping in from behind the 12th green for birdie and then ripping a fairway metal to within a few feet for a conceded eagle on the 13th to go 2 up.
McIlroy nearly holed his bunker shot on the 18th, and Lowry followed with a steady shot out to 4 feet and calmly sank the putt.
“Deep down, I knew I could beat him,” Lowry said. “There’s a reason I’m here, and this is match play.”
Stacy Lewis shot a 9-under 63 in the first round to take a three-stroke lead at the LPGA Thailand in Chonburi.
The American had an eagle on the par-4 third hole and added four birdies on the front nine at the Siam Country Club Pattaya Old Course. She had two more birdies before a bogey at No. 16. The 2012 LPGA Tour player of the year birdied the last two holes to finish three strokes ahead of France’s Karine Icher (66).
“I really started hitting the ball solid early on,” said Lewis, a six-time LPGA winner, including the 2011 Kraft Nabisco major. “I think I missed two greens all day. I just had a ton of birdie putts and I even left a few out there.”
Inbee Park, Amy Yang, Catriona Matthew and Gerina Piller were four strokes behind. Top-ranked Yani Tseng was well off the pace at 3 over.