Els makes early Match Play exit, Woods survives

Ernie Els was the biggest name to fall by the wayside as twice winner Tiger Woods conjured a miraculous escape at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Wednesday.

Woods came from three down with five holes to play for a one-up victory over fellow American JB Holmes but fourth seed Els was hammered 6&5 by Jonathan Byrd, the fifth time he has lost in the event’s opening round in eight appearances.

American Byrd, world-ranked 63rd, reeled off six birdies in a flawless display at Dove Mountain’s Gallery Golf Club to end the match on the 13th green.

”I went out there and played some really good golf,” a beaming Byrd told reporters. ”I barely got in the field so I was excited about being here, and excited about having a good match with Ernie. It was fun.”

Three-times major winner Els contributed to his premature exit by making four bogeys in the first nine holes.

Top seed Woods, bidding for his eighth title in nine starts worldwide and his sixth in a row, struggled for most of the round before pulling off a spectacular Houdini-like escape.

Tournament champion at La Costa in 2003 and 2004, he reeled off three birdies in a row from the 14th to level the match before rolling in a 36-foot eagle putt on the 17th green to go ahead for the first time.

Holmes, who had never previously played in competition with the game’s leading player, narrowly missed an eight-footer to birdie the last and take the match into extra holes.

”The way I was playing for most of the day, I should be headed home,” Woods said. ”I wasn’t hitting the ball very well and I am very, very fortunate to make it into the next round.”

The 32-year-old made an ominous start when he hit his opening tee shot out of bounds. He then went two down on the third where Holmes rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt.

Price paid

Woods paid the price for another inaccurate tee shot at the par-four 13th where he drove right into the desert scrub and was forced to take a penalty drop.

After hitting his third shot short of the green and chipping to two feet, he conceded the hole to Holmes, who was 23 feet from the cup in two, to go three down before his dramatic fightback.

In a first-round match of high quality, Britain’s Paul Casey piled up nine birdies to edge Swede Robert Karlsson two up on the 18th green.

Casey, who was nine under for the round, conceded he was a little fortunate to overcome Karlsson, who finished at seven under.

”I knew it was going to be incredibly difficult and he proved me right,” Casey said.

”It did go through my mind at one stage, could I shoot 64 or something and lose this match? It was very close. It’s just nice to get through that first round.”

Fellow Briton Colin Montgomerie gained a major confidence boost by beating world number seven Jim Furyk 3&2 and Swede Henrik Stenson, the defending champion, survived a late fightback by Australia’s Robert Allenby to win one up.

British Open champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland triumphed 4&3 against American Jerry Kelly and US Ryder Cup player Stewart Cink won by the same margin against Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez.

In other matches, world number two Phil Mickelson beat fellow American Pat Perez one up, Swede Niclas Fasth outclassed Australian left-hander Richard Green 6&5 and American Boo Weekley edged Germany’s Martin Kaymer 2&1. – Reuters 2008.

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