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Drama on a Desert Stage

The difference between a good book and a great book is that you’re crestfallen when you get to the last page of a great book. In that vein, the greatest tragedy of Thursday’s play at the WGC Match Play was that darkness halted play on a scintillating day that saw far more drama than what you’ll get on the first full day of a “normal” golf tournament. 

Thursday’s magic went well beyond the novelty of match play, though that factor emphatically contributed to the spectacle. When one of the world’s greatest players has a so-so day on Thursday in a stroke-play event, he can make it up on Friday. But in this event, a stumble at the wrong moment could lead to an early trunk slam, and many of the greatest players on Earth suffered that fate today. 

Think of this event as a version of March Madness. You’ve got 64 entrants in four separate brackets, and it’s single elimination. Except that in this event, the #16 seed has a meaningful chance of knocking off a #1, something that’s never happened in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. 

Today, that exact fate befell two of the event’s top seeds. And these victims were hardly nameless faces; the two best players in the world, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, saw their weeks end early with stunning losses to Shane Lowry and Charles Howell III, respectively. Howell had never beaten Woods in a match before today, ever. Woods lost despite a bogey-free round in which he hit 14 of 17 greens in regulation. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Lowry. (Hint: He’s from the Republic of Ireland, and is not related to Paul Lawrie.) 

The other #1 seeds didn’t exactly waltz into the second round. Louis Oosthuizen beat Richie Ramsay (it’s okay if you need to look him up, too) 2 and 1, and Luke Donald finished with a birdie to come from behind to beat alternate entrant Marcel Siem 1-up, the golf equivalent of the #1 seed’s winning its first-round game with a buzzer-beating tip-in. 

The snow-delayed first round still isn’t over; there are two matches that were still on the course when it became too dark to continue. Those matches will conclude early Friday, after which the Round of 32 will begin. In the meantime, here are a few more bracket-busters from the concluded matches: 

Two #2 seeds fell at the earliest possible point. Lee Westwood and Adam Scott (who was probably over-seeded) lost to Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Tim Clark, respectively. Cabrera-Bello’s win was particularly impressive as he came back from 3-down at the turn, finally catching Westwood with a par on the 18th hole to force extra play. 

Two #3 seeds also dropped out early: Charl Schwartzel lost to Russell Henley, and Jason Dufner dropped his match to Richard Sterne, with both matches going the full 18 holes. The same fate befell half of the #4 seeds, as Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson both lost; Johnson got bludgeoned by #13 seed Alexander Noren, 6 and 4. That means that fully half of the players seeded #1-4 lost on the first day of play. Show me a March Madness like that. Needless to say, a great many brackets got destroyed today. 

One player who has to be liking his prospects right now is defending champion Hunter Mahan. He’s in what was once Woods’ bracket. If he gets by #14 seed Sterne tomorrow, he’ll face the winner of the Martin Kaymer/Cabrera-Bello match; Mahan would likely be favored against either man. The highest seed left in the top half of that bracket is Webb Simpson, and Mahan is a better match-play competitor than Simpson is. The Bracket of Death right now has got to be the lower half of the Hogan Division, which features Justin Rose, Nicolas Colsaerts, Sergio Garcia, and Matt Kuchar, any of whom is capable of winning the entire event. It says here that Kuchar makes it out of that gauntlet to face Oosthuizen in the quarterfinals.

Finally, one other former winner of this event deserves mention. Ian Poulter won Thursday and faces Bo Van Pelt on Friday. If he wins that match, he’ll face a double-digit seed (either #15 Clark or #10 Thorbjorn Oleson), with the winner of that match getting a date in the quarters against a player who may well prove to be #1 seed Donald. Keep this in mind as this thrilling event unfolds: No one ever got rich betting against Ian Poulter in a match-play format.

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