The snow is gone from the Match Play Championship, and so are Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
In a stunning conclusion to what already is a bizarre week on Dove Mountain, Shane Lowry of Ireland made a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole to eliminate Rory McIlroy in the opening round Thursday of golf’s most unpredictable tournament.
“It’s definitely a day I’m going to remember,” said Lowry, the third player in the last four years to beat the No. 1 seed in the opening round.
Moments later, Charles Howell III finished off a fabulous round in cold conditions by defeating Woods on the 17th hole. Howell, who had not faced Woods in match play since losing to him in the third round of the 1996 U.S. Amateur, played bogey-free on a course that still had patches of snow and ice after being cleared Thursday morning.
The match was all square when Howell hit a wedge that stopped inches from the cup on the 15th hole for a conceded birdie. Then, he holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the 16th and went 2 up when Woods badly missed a 12-foot birdie putt.
“I had nothing to lose,” said Howell, who started the year outside the top 100 in the world and hasn’t qualified for this World Golf Championship in five years. “In this format, match play is crazy. He’s Tiger Woods. I was lucky to hang in there.”
The final matches were played in near darkness, and they could have stopped after 15 holes. Woods wanted to play on, even though Howell had the momentum. Woods was 2 under for the day, and neither of them made a bogey.
“We both played well,” Woods said. “He made a couple of more birdies than I did. He played well, and he’s advancing.”
McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, built a 2-up lead early in the match until Lowry rallied and grabbed the moment by chipping in for birdie on the par-3 12th and then ripping a fairway metal to within a few feet for a conceded eagle on the 13th.
Lowry missed a short par putt on the 14th, only for McIlroy to give away the next hole with a tee shot into the desert and a bunker shot that flew over the 15th green and into a cactus. But the two-time major champion hung tough, coming up with a clutch birdie on the 16th to stay in the game.
McIlroy nearly holed his bunker on the 18th, and Lowry followed with a steady shot out to 4 feet and calmly sank the putt.
“Deep down, I knew I could beat him,” Lowry said. “There’s a reason I’m here, and this is match play.”
For McIlroy, more questions are sure to follow him to Florida for his road to the Masters. He now has played only 54 holes in the first two months of the season, missing the cut in Abu Dhabi and losing in the first round at Dove Mountain.
“You want to try and get as far as you can, but I guess that’s match play,” McIlroy said. “I probably would have lost by more if I had played someone else in the field. It wasn’t a great quality match. But it would have been nice to get through and just get another day here and another competitive round under my belt.”
Just like that, the Match Play Championship lost its two biggest stars in one day. The only other time the top two seeds lost in the opening round was in 2002, when Woods and Phil Mickelson lost at La Costa.
Luke Donald nearly made it the top three seeds except for a clutch performance. He holed a 10-foot birdie putt to halve the 17th hole and stay tied with Marcel Siem of Germany. Donald then birdied the 18th from 7 feet to win the match.
Louis Oosthuizen, the No. 4 seed, rallied to get past Richie Ramsay of Scotland.
Lewis leads LPGA Thailand at 9 under: Stacy Lewis shot a 9-under 63 in the first round Thursday to take a three-stroke lead at the LPGA Thailand.
The American had an eagle on the par-4 third hole, then added four more birdies on the front nine at the Siam Country Club Pattaya Old Course. She had two more birdies before a bogey at No. 16.
The 2012 LPGA Tour player of the year then birdied the last two holes to finish three strokes ahead of Karine Icher (66).