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To advance, Tiger needs to improve

MARANA, Ariz. -- On Wednesday, Tiger Woods gave a laborious demonstration of why he hasn't won an official professional event in 2½ years. In a 1-up victory over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the 36-year-old 14-time major winner drove the ball erratically and missed makeable putts.

At times he looked like the Tiger of old -- a 52-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole -- and at others he acted the part of a struggling mid-career player confused by the greens and the altitude at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain.

It was an ugly, mediocre match made watchable only because the former No. 1 player in the world was one of the contestants.

"Neither one of us had our best stuff today," Woods said. "So consequently the match went back and forth. We both made our share of mistakes, but somehow I was able to move on."

To win his fourth Match Play Championship, Woods must win five more matches. That's five players he has to beat who won't be intimidated by the man with 71 career wins.

His next opponent, Nick Watney, probably will play better than the Spaniard, who jumped to an early 2-up lead Wednesday. Woods will have to shoot better than the 1-over-par 73 he would have had if this tournament were a stroke-play event. Woods' two drives that found the desert Wednesday could cost him against Watney.

On Monday, Fernandez-Castano called Woods beatable, and by Wednesday evening, he could have proudly said about Woods what former NFL coach Dennis Green once famously declared after his Arizona Cardinals lost to the Chicago Bears.

"They are who we thought they were! And we let 'em off the hook!" Green said.

That's a catchy and memorable line that holds some truth for Woods' place in the game now. Fernandez-Castano knew he was facing a fallen giant and that he let him off the hook.

"I mean, if there was one day to beat Tiger Woods, this was it," he said. "I had my chances, and I didn't take them. And you can't do that with one of the greatest in history."

Still, Woods succeeds despite his errant shots and shaky putting. He never gives up. His opponent Wednesday learned that lesson. But is Woods' will enough to sustain him for five more matches? Doesn't he have to show some consistency to make it all the way through to the final?

Things were very different in his life the last time he won this event, in 2008. Later that year, he won the U.S. Open on one leg with Hank Haney as his coach and Steve Williams as his caddie. Elin Nordegren was still his wife. He made putts from everywhere at Torrey Pines. His swing was flawed but he won four times in a season shortened by his tattered left leg.

Four years later, he's divorced, has a new coach (Sean Foley) and a new caddie (Joe LaCava). And he's obsessed with his swing and putting. Every competitive round he plays is seemingly a battle between the old and new swings, between the old and new Tiger.

Lately, it's been his putting. After a sloppy performance on the greens at Pebble Beach, Woods showed up this week at Dove Mountain looking for answers from Steve Stricker, who gave him a lesson Tuesday. But it didn't take.

"I had a hard time reading these greens," Woods said. "You have the slope of the greens, there's the valley down there, but then the grain on the greens isn't matching up with the valley.

"I probably talked myself out of two or three putts that, you know, I hit it, and if I would have gone with my first instinct, I would have made it."

His uncertainty about the greens, his putting and his swing have made him vulnerable to anybody on any given day. Every time he barely beats a guy such as Fernandez-Castano, he becomes a bigger target for the next player. Woods might get fortunate against Watney, too, but at some point the luck will run out.

Fernandez-Castano let him off the hook Wednesday. But Woods is who he thought he was.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.