Tiger Woods was at his best. It almost wasn’t enough.
He was firing at every flag he could, making birdie on every other hole, and still feeling enormous pressure from Aaron Baddeley, who held his own Friday in the Accenture Match Play Championship and twice had putts that would have sent Woods home.
“I just figured I had to make birdie to win the hole,” Woods said. “If I didn’t, I was going to lose the hole. It was just that simple.”
Woods made his 12th birdie on the 20th hole of an electrifying match at Dove Mountain, a 13-foot putt that was so true Woods began removing his cap when the ball was a foot from going into the centre of the cup.
It wasn’t the first time Woods has made so many birdies, but those matches usually end quickly. This one stretched 20 holes, his longest match in nine years of this tournament.
He was relieved, satisfied, thrilled to reach the quarter-finals.
“All of the above,” Woods said wearily. “All of the above.”
It was devastating to Baddeley, playing head-to-head with Woods for the first time since the U.S. Open at Oakmont, when Baddeley had a two-shot lead and shot 80. That was a distant memory on a cloudy afternoon, for Baddeley recovered from a shaky start by making eight birdies in a nine-hole stretch, one of them conceded when Woods journeyed through the desert.
He stood over a 10-foot birdie on the 18th, a tough putt that swung sharply from right-to-left, and missed it under the hole. He had 12 feet for eagle and the victory on the 19th hole, and was stunned to see it turn left and burn the edge.
Woods seized his first chance with his birdie putt on the 20th hole to win the match, reaching the quarter-finals for the fifth time.
“I played great, you know?” Baddeley said. “I made him have to win it.”
Next up for Woods is K.J. Choi, a 1-up winner over Paul Casey of England. Typical of this tournament, those two matches could not have been any different. While Woods and Baddeley combined for 22 birdies and had a best-ball score of 58 in regulation, Choi cooled after opening with three birdies, finishing with 11 straight pars. That was good enough to advance.
The World Golf Championship again has an American flavour. They began this week with a record-low 20 players, but there is still one American alive in each bracket.
Woody Austin easily handled Boo Weekley, 3 and 2, to advance to play defending champion Henrik Stenson, who hung on to beat Jonathan Byrd. Stenson won his ninth straight match, the third-longest streak in the Match Play Championship.
Stewart Cink took advantage of sloppy play by Colin Montgomerie to deny the Scot valuable world ranking points, winning 4 and 2. Cink will play U.S. Open championAngel Cabrera, who made six birdies on the front nine and beat Steve Stricker, 4 and 3.
Justin Leonard reached the quarter-finals for the first time and joined Cabrera as the only players to have not played the 18th hole after three rounds. Leonard dispatched ofStuart Appleby, 3 and 2, after running off five straight birdies at the turn.
Leonard will face Vijay Singh, who rallied from 2-down with two holes to play, then beat Rod Pampling on the 25th hole.
After a furious rally to survive the first round, and a far more comfortable win in the second round, Woods looked like he would have another short day of work when he won the first two holes with birdies against Baddeley.
What followed was match play at its finest, with both players giving away a few holes, then an explosion of birdies that kept the gallery hustling along the desert to see what they would do next.
There were a few ugly moments.
Woods hooked his tee shot into the base of a chollo cactus on No. 4 and tried to play out left-handed with an inverted wedge, but it was so far off line that it bounced off a knee-high wooden stake. One hole later, Baddeley returned the favour by pulling his second shot on the par 5 into a prickly pear bush, proving match play indeed can be dangerous.
Taking an unplayable lie, he tried to drop onto the flat cactus bush and have it roll into the desert sand. But when it stayed there, he stepped gingerly into the bush, and his shot hit the cactus.
Woods plunked a marshal in the head with his errant drive on the 13th, with caromed into the desert and led to a penalty drop. Then came a nerve-jangling finish.
“It was quality shot after quality shot,” Woods said. “Matches like that are fun to be a part of.”
Baddeley took his first lead with a 12-foot birdie on the 14th, after Woods missed from 15 feet. From there, the Aussie played away from the dangerous slopes to the centre of the green, making Woods beat him.
“He did all the things you were supposed to do when you have the lead,” Woods said.
And Woods did what he usually does, starting with an eight-iron into two feet for birdie on the 16th to tie the match. And on they went, both reaching the par-5 17th in two for a putt at eagle, both finding the 18th fairway for a decent look at birdie on the 18th.
Woods could only think of one other match he played at such a high level, when he went the 36-hole distance with Mark O’Meara in the final of the World Match Play Championship in England in 1998.
He lost that match. Thanks to a 12th and final birdie, he now gets to keep playing.