Tiger Woods didn't make a mistake, but neither did opponent Charles Howell III on Thursday in the first round of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz. However, Howell III wielded a hotter putter and upset the No. 2 overall seed and three-time winner, 2 and 1.
"We both played well," said Woods. "We didn't make a bogey in the group. He made a couple more birdies than I did."
Howell III, who never trailed, made four birdies and no bogeys. Tiger made two birdies and no bogeys. Howell III broke open the tightly-contested match with consecutive birdies at 15 and 16 to take control.
"He's the best of all-time," said Howell III, who has known Tiger since amateur golf and had never beaten him in head-to-head play. "I knew I had to play my best to have a chance. I could play with nothing to lose."
While they played many casual matches against each other at Isleworth Country Club in Orlando, Fla., they had never competed in match play on the PGA TOUR. Their last official meeting came in the 1996 U.S. Amateur, with Woods beating Howell in the third round.
"I didn't really miss a shot today," Woods said. "I hit a couple loose ones, but other than that, I played really well."
Woods, who hadn't competed since winning the Farmers Insurance Open three weeks ago, his first start on the PGA TOUR this year, couldn't shake Howell III. The latter already has three Top 10 finishes this year and lost in a playoff at the Humana Open.
Playing in cool, mostly cloudy conditions, they halved the par-4 first hole with two-putt pars. Howell III asserted himself at the 574-yard, par-5 second hole by sinking a long birdie putt to take a 1-up lead.
After halving the third hole with pars, Woods nearly evened the match at the 393-yard, par-4 fourth hole, but lipped out a 20-foot uphill birdie putt. At the par-4 fifth, he hit a nice approach shot 20 feet past the cup and buried the downhill putt to square the match.
The next two holes were halved with pars. But at the 566-yard, par-5 eighth, Howell III poured in a birdie putt from just over 25 feet to regain a 1-up advantage. That's how it stood until the 563-yard, par-5 13th, when Woods two-putted for a birdie from just off the front edge and Howell III missed a 7-foot putt to tie.
Howell III almost recaptured the lead at the 449-yard, par-4 14th, but lipped out a five-foot birdie putt. But at the 331-yard, par-4 15th, he didn't need his putter, flagging his second shot less than a foot from the hole to go 1 up in the match.
At the 188-yard, par-3 16th, Howell III drained a 20-foot birdie putt to put the pressure on Tiger. He had a chance to tie the hole, but missed a 12-foot putt.
Needing to win 17 and 18 to force a playoff, Woods hit his approach shot at the 466-yard, par-4 17th 30 feet beyond the hole and Howell III knocked his approach shot inside him. Tiger missed and Howell III hit a nice lag putt, Woods conceding the match.
Both players had the option of stopping play at 17 due to darkness, but elected to keep playing.
"I was playing well," said Woods, who decided to take his chances rather than come back and finish Friday morning. "I thought I could make two birdies."
Tiger returns to competition next week in the Honda Classic at PGA National Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Last year, he tied for second, two strokes behind Rory McIlroy.