By DOUG FERGUSON
MARANA, Ariz. — Graeme McDowell rarely felt as hopeless in match play as he did Wednesday at Dove Mountain.
Overpowered and outplayed for much of the first round, he was 3 down with three holes to play as he watched the majestic flight of Gary Woodland’s tee shot cover the flag on the 16th hole. McDowell figured it was a matter of time before he climbed into a courtesy car to be driven back to the clubhouse.
“The Cadillacs were circling,” he said. They must have looked like buzzards.
In an opening round of comebacks in the Match Play Championship, none was more stunning than McDowell surviving to see another day of this most unpredictable event.
Woodland’s shot took a hard bounce and landed between two corporate suites. Bogey. With a wedge in hand, Woodland pulled it on the wrong side of the 17th green, and McDowell capitalized by making a 12-foot birdie. Woodland blasted out of the left bunker, over the 18th green and into the right bunker to lose a third straight hole.
McDowell completed his improbable rally with a 6-foot birdie on the 19th hole to win.
“I’m sure he’s extremely disappointed right now — and I’m extremely elated,” McDowell said. “I’m surprised to be sitting here, having won. Yeah, I hit a couple of quality shots down the last couple of holes, but he had mistakes, as well. It’s a brutal format.”
It certainly was brutal for the 32 players headed for the airport. Such is the nature of this World Golf Championship, as cut-throat as it comes.
“It feels like a Sunday afternoon on Wednesday,” McDowell said, realizing that Thursday won’t be much different.
McDowell was among eight players who trailed with six holes remaining and somehow survived.
Brandt Snedeker had to make two tough par saves just to stay alive on the 18th and 19th holes of his match against David Lynn of England. He won with an 8-foot birdie on the next hole. It was the only time all day he had the lead.
Jason Dufner was 3 down with five holes remaining when Scott Stallings made too many mistakes, Dufner made one clutch birdie, and the PGA champion advanced in 19 holes with a simple par.
Six matches went the distance. Five matches went overtime. The last one was Ernie Els, vexed by this format so many times that some years he didn’t bother showing up. He was 2 down with three to play and outlasted Stephen Gallacher in 19 holes.
“I feel for him,” Els said, perhaps because he has been there himself.
After a wild day, there was a small degree of normalcy on Dove Mountain. Only three of the top 10 seeds were eliminated — Zach Johnson (3), Dustin Johnson (6) and Steve Stricker (9), who wasn’t even sure he would play until his brother had liver transplant surgery last weekend.
The better seed — it’s really just a number — won 23 of the 32 matches.
“Seeds don’t matter. Who you play doesn’t matter,” said Jordan Spieth, sounding wiser than his 20 years after a tough 2-up victory over Pablo Larrazabal of Spain.
Henrik Stenson, awarded the top seed because Tiger Woods and Masters champion Adam Scott chose not to play, trailed Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand with five holes to play. The big Thai struggled with his putter, however, missing a 4-footer for par on the 14th to lose the hole, and an 8-footer for birdie on the 15th that would have given him the lead. Stenson made a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th, and won the match when Aphibarnrat failed to match his birdie on the 17th by missing from 5 feet.
“I’m still in shock,” Stenson said. “It was a tough match.”
Second-seeded Justin Rose held off Scott Piercy, and No. 4 seed Rory McIlroy had little trouble against Boo Weekley to advance to the round of 32 on Thursday.
Zach Johnson, the No. 3 seed, went out in the opening round for the fourth straight year, this time to Richard Sterne of South Africa, 5 and 4. Dustin Johnson now has lost in the first round five times in six appearances. He never led in a 4-and-3 loss to Peter Hanson.
The longest day belonged to Sergio Garcia, who missed a 6-foot putt on the 18th hole for the win over Marc Leishman of Australia. They went 22 holes before Garcia made a 6-foot birdie putt to advance.
In other matches:
— Harris English made his Match Play Championship debut with a 5-and-3 win over Lee Westwood.
— Billy Horschel made six birdies in 13 holes to beat Jamie Donaldson of Wales, 6 and 5, in the shortest match of the day.
— Rickie Fowler, coming off three straight missed cuts, caught Ian Poulter on a bad day and sent the Ryder Cup star packing with a 2-and-1 victory. “It feels like a big win after those missed cuts,” Fowler said. “It was nice to be the underdog. I had nothing to lose.”
— Bubba Watson was giving holes away early before winning three straight holes on the back nine in a 2-and-1 win over Mikko Ilonen of Finland.
Still, no match epitomized the wild nature of this format than McDowell’s win over Woodland.
They live down the street from each other at Lake Nona. They practiced together last week. They flew out to Arizona together. And they had to play each other in the first round on a course where Woodland figured to have a big advantage with his length. McDowell played a practice round with Brooks Koepka, the first alternate, to get used to being outdriven by some 50 yards.
His worst fears were realized, especially standing on the 16th tee. He saw his agent on the phone, hopeful he could find him a good flight back to Florida.
“I thought it was over,” McDowell said. “You’re not coming back from 3 down against a guy that’s playing as well as him. Yeah, I’m still going to try to hit my shots. But it required a mistake from him to give me half a sniff, even.”