The Loop

If you give Tiger a chance

February 23, 2008

MARANA, Ariz. -- Never give Tiger Woods life. Aaron Baddeley found that out the hard way Friday in a sensational battle at The Gallery in the third round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Three times the young Australian had chances to put the top-ranked and top-seeded Woods away, but just missed putts. Finally, on the second hole of sudden death, Woods slammed the door with a 13-foot birdie putt, removing his cap just as the ball disappeared into the hole.

"It looked pretty good from where I was," a drained and relieved Woods said afterward.

The match was one for the ages, befitting of a final. Woods (12) and Baddeley (10) combined for 22 birdies. During one stretch, Baddeley birdied eight of nine holes (including a concession), to reverse a 2-down deficit into a 1-up advantage after 15 holes.

Woods responded by hitting an 8-iron to two feet at the par-3 16th for a birdie to square the match. Then Baddeley had near-miss eagle/birdie/eagle attempts at 17, 18 and 1 to win but couldn't convert.

"It was unbelievable, really," said Woods, who will face K.J. Choi in the quarterfinals  Saturday morning. "I made two bogeys and gave him two holes, but he did the same. But every other hole it seemed like we birdied."

Baddeley, still getting comfortable with a swing change, gave Woods all he could handle.

"I played really nice, especially after being 2 down after two," he said. "I was just trying to make as many birdies as I could. It was disappointing to miss those putts, but I'm encouraged with the way I played."

The last time Woods and Baddeley played together was in the final round of the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Leading by two strokes, Baddeley triple-bogeyed the first hole and shot 80.

"You have to understand he was in a major transition with his golf swing," said Woods. "It takes time. And he's won some tournaments now with his swing and has proven he can hit shots down the stretch. You can't hit the ball poorly at Oakmont and be leading after three rounds."

Woods, the only two-time winner of this event, enjoyed the birdie-fest, as did the large gallery that followed throughout.

He also overcame adversity. At the 495-yard fourth hole, Woods hooked his tee shot into the desert and had a restricted swing because of a cactus. Forced to swing left-handed, he hit a gallery stake with his second shot, barely advancing the ball. This, after a marshal asked if he wanted the stake removed.

"The thing is I was actually aiming probably 15 feet right of that," Woods said of the stake. "Club's upside down, so I hit it kind of off the bottom and it shot left. I wasn't aiming over there, trust me."

At the par-4 13th, Woods pushed his tee shot to the right and hit a marshal in the head, the ball caroming into the desert. Woods gave a glove to the man and showed genuine concern, then had to take an unplayable lie and lost the hole.

"He seemed OK," Woods said. "He was totally alert, there was blood everywhere. I didn't see any knot. He said he was fine."

Woods has now won 20 of his last 23 matches and is 28-6 overall. He is 18-4 against International players and 10-2 against Americans.

He'll be tested again against Choi, who beat him four times last year in head-to-head situations, including victories at the Memorial Tournament and inaugural AT&T National.

"K.J. is a great guy and one of the best drivers out here," said Woods. "He drives it on a string most of the time. He's been very consistent over the last few years. So I expect that will be the case tomorrow and it will be a tough match."

*-- Mark Soltau *