MARANA, Ariz. – The desert had swallowed his ball, along with any hope of winning, and Tiger Woods was mad that no one had bothered to tell him. Part of what makes Tiger the world’s best golfer is his temperament. He takes something like that personally, as everyone within earshot learned Thursday.
"They couldn't tell me it was out of bounds?" Woods whined to no one and everyone. Silence greeted him. On the 15th hole of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Tiger tried to drive a 340-yard par 4, carried the ball too far right, watched it carom in between a pair of 25-foot-tall saguaros like a successful field goal and lamented its final landing spot: amid the treasures of the Southwest, fallen cacti and leafless trees, and trapped behind a barbed-wire fence.
Woods began his walk back to the tee box well aware that his tee shot on No. 15 encapsulated the rest of his day at the Accenture Match Play, and his entire comeback from knee surgery, for that matter: He might have found himself after a long search, but right now that's not enough.
In a field with the world's 64 highest-ranked players, on a course where rattlesnakes literally and figuratively roamed, Woods got bit by a short man with a fancy little belly and a big game. Tim Clark, the South African whom Woods ousted from this tournament two years ago, roared to a 4-and-2 victory that spoiled Tiger's eight-months-in-the-offing return.
Among those bathing in the gloom were PGA Tour officials who yearned for Tiger to reinvigorate the circuit with a weekend television appearance, the Accenture's organizers whose ticket and concession sales will plummet and, of course, Woods. He felt good. His left knee held up. In Round 1, he flicked aside Brendan Jones like a gum wrapper.
"That's the reason why I think it's so amazing what he does," Clark said. "Because he goes out every week as the favorite and he has to perform."
And it's also why an air of disbelief surrounds Woods every time he doesn't win. The fact that he has so raised the expectations – no other athlete, coming off a blown-out ACL, would return as the immediate favorite – is a good thing for golf, even if his absence cripples the sport.
The mystique of Tiger exists because he wins. Infallible is fun. Invincible is exciting. Grand Slam Tiger is tantalizing. The expectation that Woods will always hit the right shot is borne of seeing him do it so many times.
So, yes, the eagerness for his return turned out mightily overblown, and Woods left for the airport – along with the other three No. 1 seeds, losers all in the first two rounds – before the sun set. As much as he tried to convince people he played well, he hadn't.
"I missed only three shots all day," Woods said. One of those was a shanked 8-iron. Another was the drive on the 15th. He didn't identify the third. Perhaps it was the shot on No. 4 that landed in a bunker. Or maybe the one on 6. Or 11. Or one of the two he flew into the sand on 14.
That's five bunkers to complement his trip into the Sonoran Desert. If Woods wants to believe he played well, that is fine. He didn't. His four birdies were good. His three bogeys offset all that good. And a match that was all square after the 10th hole turned into a shellacking by the 16th.
"You can play well and go home," Woods said. "That is the nature of match play."
Some wondered why Woods chose to return in the match-play format. He had won this tournament three times and compiled a 32-6 record before Thursday. He also had lost to Peter O'Malley and Nick O'Hern, among others, and recognized that match play is an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better ballet.
Momentum can shift seismically, and it did so on the fifth hole. Clark stared down a 68-foot putt, rolled it with perfect speed – and over Woods' ball mark, no less – and celebrated it dropping in the cup with a laugh. Woods missed his putt to halve the hole, and from there, Clark played as if he had shattered the illusion.
Still, he wouldn't allow himself to watch Woods lip out an important putt on the 13th hole – Clark glanced left, then right, then up, then right to keep Tiger out of his peripheral frame – and figured the onslaught was about to hit when Tiger holed out from a bunker on No. 14.
"I figured the match was probably going to go to 18, even when I was 3 up with three to play," Clark said. "You fully expect him to do something."
Except Tiger didn't. He wilted on the back nine against a player that, for the day at least, proved superior. He headed home with an ugly combination of letters and numbers next to his name: T17, or tied for 17th place. And despite all that, the PGA Tour is so much better with Tiger around, finish be damned.
Because while infallibility may be fun, so is watching a little snake take a big chomp out of it.