By Mark Lamport-Stokes
MARANA, Arizona (Reuters) - Three-times winner Tiger Woods, despite playing well, was stunningly eliminated in the snow-delayed first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Thursday, losing 2&1 to Charles Howell III.
Woods never led in a flawless encounter where not one bogey was recorded but he got back to all square with four holes to play before fellow American and good friend Howell birdied the 15th and 16th to regain control.
Howell almost holed out with his approach at the par-15th, his ball settling just inches from the cup, then sank a 24-footer at the par-three 16th to go 2-up.
Both players parred the 17th in fading daylight at Dove Mountain as Woods was knocked out at the first hurdle for a third time at the World Golf Championships (WGC) event.
"I played well, I really did," Woods, Match Play champion in 2003, 2004 and 2008, told reporters. "I hit a lot of good shots out there. I didn't make a bogey out there.
"Unfortunately it's the nature of the format, and I'm not advancing. It's the nature of the format. You've just got to beat the guy you're playing against, and I didn't do that today."
Howell, playing Woods for the first time in this format in an official tournament since he lost to his compatriot in the quarter-finals of the 1996 U.S. amateur championship, was euphoric after his win.
"As far as beating Tiger Woods goes, it shows you that match play is crazy," he smiled after outscoring Woods by four birdies to two on a 7,791-yard layout playing ultra-long due to the wet, post-snow conditions.
"I did have to play a good round, but hey, it's a bit hard to believe I'm sitting here today with this (win). I've played a lot of golf with Tiger, and he's been a friend. He's helped me out along the way.
"I've had questions, I've asked for help from him, he's always been extremely gracious with that. I don't think I've ever beat the guy while we were playing in the same group. That goes back to (friendlies at) Isleworth."
Howell went 1-up for the first time with a birdie at the par-five second and again at the par-five eighth where he drained a 28-footer.
Though Woods kept in close touch, Howell effectively closed the door on the match with his two-birdie burst at 15 and 16.
"I knew I had to play extremely well to have a chance, and I still kept waiting for that Tiger moment," said the 33-year-old Howell, who is known for his workaholic approach to the game.
"He hit his second shot into 15 from the fairway, looked awfully good, but it pitched long. And his tee shot on 16 never left the flag. He missed that putt."
After Howell had rolled in his 24-footer at the par-three 16th, Woods missed with his birdie attempt from 11 feet.
"He never got more than one-up most of the day until he made that putt there at 16," said Woods, who also lost in the first round of the Match Play Championship in 2002 and 2011.
"But it was a tight match.
"I had some putts for birdie at 10, 11, 12. He had a (birdie) putt there at 14. We missed our share of putts out there. It was a good, solid match for both of us."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)