Fickle match play boots Tiger, Rory

MARANA, Ariz. -- I love underdogs. David and Goliath is my favorite biblical story. I like "Hoosiers"-style upsets. I root for small-market baseball teams and NFL players from Division II schools.

Yet I hated to see both Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods lose Thursday in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain.

But this is match play, a fickle proposition that makes even great players vulnerable to its whims.

"I played well, I really did," Tiger said after his 2 and 1 loss to Charles Howell III. "I hit a lot of good shots out there. I didn't make a bogey. Unfortunately it's the nature of the format, and I'm not advancing."

Following a disappointing 1 down loss to Ireland's Shane Lowry, McIlroy sounded like a man who couldn't wait to get to a stroke-play event.

"It'll be nice to go play a tournament next week [Honda] and then Doral," he said. "Yeah, obviously disappointed I didn't get to play a little more golf this week, but I'll practice over the weekend."

McIlroy struggled Thursday with his iron play, missing several shots to the right.

"I probably would have lost by more if I had played someone else in the field," said the 23-year-old two-time major champion. "It wasn't a great quality match."

The Accenture event is the only tournament on the PGA Tour schedule that uses the match-play format. It's one of the game's treasures, an event fans deserve to witness at the professional level.

But Thursday's outcome must make you pause to consider the mean, unforgiving nature of match play.

What about the fans and sponsors who were here because Tiger was in the field?

Many wanted to see a Tiger-Rory final in the desert. No one could ensure that, but the chances of that duel occurring are far greater in a stroke-play event.

It would have been nice to see Tiger or Rory play an underdog such as Howell or Lowry in the finals. That would have given the bracketologists that David and Goliath story. It would have given the fans an underdog to root for against one of golf's giants.

But instead we have a bracket torn to pieces that could land the title in anybody's hands. A great champion will emerge Sunday, but it might not be the best player in the field.

McIlroy lost to a man Thursday who had five bogeys. In a 72-hole stroke-play event or 36-hole match play, McIlroy most certainly beats Lowry.

"Match play is a bit of a -- it's not a lottery, the best guy usually wins, but if it's over 36 holes or something, it's more of an even sort of keel," McIlroy said. "I would have been 1 down after 18 holes and had a great chance, but that's 18-hole match play; you have to get off to a fast start and you have to play well to win."

Tiger and McIlroy didn't get it done Thursday. Period. They lost in a format that is the same for everyone. This was Tiger's third time losing in the first round of the event. And this was the third time in the past four years the overall No. 1 seed lost in the first round. Yet it never gets easy to see the top players go out so early.

It hurts the same for No. 1 seeds that lose in the NCAA basketball tournament. Brackets are tough and unfair. The best are the best in that moment. You really need a seven-game series or a 72-hole tournament to truly prove who is the best.

On Thursday evening in the dark desert, Woods was asked whether it was frustrating that he would have beaten a lot of other guys with the effort he gave against Howell.

"It's just the way it goes," Woods said. "I've seen matches won where a guy shoots 7 under par and he's going home.

"It's the nature of the format. You've got to beat the guy you're playing against, and I didn't do that today. Chucky won the match."

Match play might have humbled the greatest of all time in a way no player ever could.