Charles Howell has his 'Tiger moment' in Match Play upset
Admit it. You were thinking it. I was thinking it. Everybody who was chatting with me on Facebook or Twitter or text messages was thinking it.
Heck, even Charles Howell III was thinking it.
"I still kept waiting for that Tiger moment," Howell said after his 2-and-1 first-round victory Thursday over the No. 2 golfer in the world at the WGC Match Play Championship.
Howell has never beaten Woods head-to-head in a match dating back to their 1996 U.S. Amateur quarterfinals showdown. That includes plenty of friendly games when they both lived and practiced at Isleworth.
So despite never getting behind all day in a bogey-free round at Dove Mountain, Howell knew from experience that "Tiger moment" was coming eventually with the likely result his own doom.
"It's part of the getting beat by him so many times, yeah, you're just waiting for it," Howell said. "It's kind of like a whipped dog -- you know it's coming. Yeah, I mean, in my mind now I can think of 20‑ to 25‑foot putts he's made on the last hole at Isleworth to clip us."
Woods didn't make any bogeys as well against Howell on Thursday -- the only pair all day who could say that on a course that had been blanketed by 4 inches of snow before getting cleared for a late afternoon restart.
But it was Howell who was dropping the big momentum bombs in the match. Howell drained long birdie putts on both front-nine par 5s to take 1-up leads. He was still clinging to that advantage after 12 holes when he missed a 6-foot birdie and Woods was able to square the match.
Then when Howell missed another short birdie try on 14 with a lipout to fail to regain the lead, those of us who've seen him let opportunities slip away through the years started having that uncomfortable feeling again.
Howell did as well.
"I actually hit a good putt there and I misread it," he said. "I didn't hit a bad putt, but still, when you miss one like that against that guy and the momentum goes his way at all, it's usually not good. It almost felt like I had lost the hole when I did that."
Surely this was time for the Tiger moment. But instead it was Howell who delivered it with a wedge that nearly holed out on 15. Woods' own wedge flew long over the flag and he missed the birdie try to give Howell the 1-up lead for the third time.
Then on the par-3 16th with the light fading, Howell hit a nice shot 18 feet behind the hole. Woods was 8 feet closer. But despite the bad light, Howell read it perfectly and dropped another birdie on him. Woods missed and the lead was now 2 up with two to go.
"It caught me off guard that he missed the putt on 16," said Howell. "I really thought he would make that one. That's in his wheelhouse. That's the stage he excels at really well. It really caught me when he missed that one and I went 2‑up. ... Really I didn't even realize I was dormie 2‑up with two to go until I got right to the tee on 17, and it actually threw me for a bit because I never maybe was really in the moment and didn't quite realize how things were."
When officials asked Howell if he wanted to continue playing, he deferred to Tiger. Surprisingly, Woods said to keep going. A couple of two-putt pars in the dark ended it and Howell had the biggest little match victory of his career.
"In a way, listen, I had nothing to lose coming into this match," Howell said. "Every time Tiger Woods tees it up, he's a marked man and he's got the bulls eye on his back. And this tournament has proven with Nick O'Hern and Peter O'Malley and a couple other guys (eliminating Woods in the past). In a way it is freeing to play golf that way, but yeah, I knew I had to play really well just to have a chance coming down the end, and then you never know what's going to happen. And that's where we were today. If I don't make that putt on 16 and I'm only 1‑up or Tiger makes it and we're even, you just never know."
Howell -- who hit 15 of 17 greens and nine of 13 fairways -- will play the winner of the match between Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Francesco Molinari, which sat at all square through 15 holes when darkness fell Thursday.