Tiger Woods was on his game in the opening round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but Charles Howell III, who until Thursday had never beaten his old friend in any match, friendly or otherwise, was sharper.
Howell, who entered this week’s contest seeded 63rd, took out the overall No. 2 seed, 2 and 1, thanks to pinpoint precision with his irons, clutch putting, and a mental toughness he has honed over the past several months with his coach Gary Gilchrist.
"Of all the days we played at Isleworth [Woods’ former home course] I can’t think of a day that I did [beat him],” Howell, whose last official head-to-head competition with Woods resulted in a loss in the 1996 U.S. Amateur, told Golf Channel after his upset victory. “I had to play my best to even have a chance out there and fortunately I holed a couple of nice ones there at the end.”
Gilchrist, who earlier in the week promised that Howell's game would "open some eyes," echoed his student.
“It’s a tough golf course and anything can happen,” Gilchrist told SBNation shortly after Howell advanced to the second round. “You have to hang in there and he did.”
Noting, as Woods did in his post-match interview, that both golfers played well, Gilchrist said the keys to Howell’s triumph were sharp and consistent iron play, draining a long birdie putt on No. 16, and a sound psyche. Gilchrist also emphasized that the win in a snow-delayed opening round was just the first step and that Howell would do well to keep his emotions in check despite besting Woods for the first time ever.
“When you haven’t beaten somebody before it takes a lot of self-belief,” Gilchrist said. “He’s put in all the hard work and all I can say to him is ‘I’m just proud of you, that hard work has paid off today and let’s keep the momentum going and keep focusing on taking out each opponent one day at a time.’”
Gilchrist said he would counsel Howell to remain calm ahead of Friday’s bout with the winner of the Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano/Francesco Molinari match, which was all square when darkness forced suspension of Thursday’s play.
“He has to gather himself and prepare himself for another round tomorrow. You can’t get too high,” he said. “Every single player [this week] is one of the best in the world...and every opponent is going to give you a challenge. You need to be mentally strong.”
Woods, for his part, was leaving on a jet plane after the first round for the second time in his last three starts and third time in 13 career starts in the match play tournament. All he could do was shrug and look forward to next week’s Honda Classic after posting a two-birdie, bogey-free round that just wasn’t good enough against an opponent who also played flawless golf.
“He made a couple more birdies than I did,” said Woods, who hit 12 of 13 fairways and 14 of 17 greens in regulation. “He played well and he’s advancing.”
Howell, who was nine of 13 in fairways hit and 15 for 17 in finding the greens, was never behind. He nailed the game-winner when he canned a birdie putt from some 24 feet on the par-3 16th.
“Holing a long putt like that put a lot of pressure on Tiger at the very end,” Gilchrist said. “That made the biggest difference.”
And now the underdog with two tour wins to his credit is moving on and the 14-time major champion is going home, thanks in large measure to Howell’s what-the-heck attitude.
“I could play with nothing to lose today,” Howell said. “Match play’s a crazy thing, but, hey, he’s Tiger Woods and I’m just lucky to hang in there.”