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February 24 2011

1:47 AM

Bjorn prevails in scrappy match

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Bjorn lost his lead on the 18th hole, but bounced back to knock off Tiger Woods.

MARANA, Ariz. -- Thomas Bjorn hadn't played in a World Golf Championships event in more than three years.

So the Dane certainly made his return to the elite a memorable one when he beat Tiger Woods in 19 holes on Wednesday during the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship.

The golf was scrappy, as were the opponents. Bjorn only trailed for two holes during the match and Woods -- as so often has been his custom -- who came up with the clutch 8-footer for birdie at No. 18 to force extra innings.

Then all that hard work unraveled at the 19th as Woods pushed his drive into the desert and it settled at the base of some sagebrush. He took two to get back out to the fairway, then hit his fourth shot to 18 feet. When the bogey putt refused to fall, Woods took off his cap and walked over to congratulate Bjorn.

"The golf today wasn't pretty at all from either one of us," Bjorn said. "Certainly early on we kept giving each other holes, and that's not really the way to do it. But it became more a match, more battle for both of us. But it became a tough match in the end because you just didn't know what was going to happen. Didn't know who was going to hit a bad shot next.
"It was one of those days on the golf course where we're not proud of the way we played, but I'm proud of the way I hung in there."

Woods called the turn of events "disappointing, very disappointing. I had all the momentum going down 18 and just gave it away." The first-round defeat was only the second time in 11 starts the three-time champ had been beaten in his opener, and the first since Peter O'Malley upset Woods in 2002.

Bjorn and Woods exchanged more than the cursory handshake when the match was over. The European Tour vet declined to reveal the exact conversation, but made clear his respect for Woods.
"That's between me and Tiger, really," Bjorn said. "But what I will say is that the game of golf needs him back at his best. And I've always been a great friend of his, and we've always had a good relationship. And I want to see him back at his best because I think it's much more fun to go up against him when he's absolutely at his peak. 

"And so it was things down that line. But what was exactly said, that stays between me and Tiger."

Woods struggled early, making bogey on the first hole, a double at No. 3 and another bogey on the fifth hole. But he fought back and squared the match three times, at one point winning three straight holes as he made the turn to take a 1-up advantage with a birdie at the 11th hole.

"I saw that spring in his step and that worried me a little bit," Bjorn said. But the Dane squared the match with a birdie at the par-5 13th, then got the edge when he was able to get up-and-down at the drivable par-4 15th and Woods didn't.

"So I believe I could win the match," Bjorn said. "But it still shows what class he's got, on the last he hit some wonderful shots there.  There was really no doubt where that putt was going to go."

Woods said he was pleased with the way he played midway through the match. But when the shots counted the most, he wasn't able to convert.

"I was hitting every shot I wanted to hit," Woods said. "Got myself back in the ball game, took the lead. Two easy up-and-downs on the back nine I didn't make. Putt at 17 I should make every time: I didn't do that. The ball I should have put in play on 19, and consequently, I'm out of here."

The wayward drive at the final hole was particularly disconcerting to Woods. "The fairway is, what, 200 yards wide, and I can't put the ball in the fairway," he said.

Bjorn agreed that Woods swung more freely when he gained the upper hand on the back nine. The 19th hole notwithstanding, he also was impressed with the way Woods drove the ball overall.

"He's on his way back, and we all know as players, when you go through stuff like that it can be extremely difficult to play," Bjorn said. "And he's just going to need a bit of time to get those things sorted out and then a lot of people put question marks if this guy is going to win golf tournaments again. I think we all know that he's going to win golf tournaments again. 

"And when he lands on one, there's no stopping him.  He'll go back and he'll get his confidence up and then he'll get straight back to where he plays his best.  But it can take time.  And sometimes it changes in a week, you know, that's all you need sometimes is just one week where it comes together. You feel comfortable and then you can be off again."

Woods declined to say whether he would break tradition, so to speak, and add next week's Honda Classic to his schedule. "Probably now is not the time to ask me right now," he said. Bjorn, though, knows exactly what he'll be doing the next time he tees it up.

Bjorn's second-round opponent is Geoff Ogilvy, who won the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2006 and '09, and finished second in 2007.     

"Geoff is a great player, and he loves desert golf," Bjorn said. "That will take some good stuff tomorrow to come out victorious in that.  But I'll take a lot from today that I can go out and control my emotions. You're not going to be more nervous than you are when you play Tiger, that's for sure.

"And certainly when you've been away from the big events for a while.  I'll take a lot from that.  And now I need a good night's rest, and then I'll start concentrating on that match tomorrow." – Helen Ross

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