RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif., July 28 - Put together the best two players in golf with nine victories this year and 11 major championships between them, and guess what happens? “We got waxed,” Tiger Woods said.
Woods and Ernie Els never had a chance Monday night in the made-for-TV “Battle at the Bridges,” falling behind on the first hole and losing hope when Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson saved their best for the bright lights of the Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.
Garcia and Mickelson, both without a victory of any kind this year, were clinging to a 1-up lead on the back nine when the sun dropped behind the foothills and the floodlights came on.
Tiger returns to old driver
Both found the fairway on the 571-yard 16th. Both cleared the water and hit the green. Garcia rolled in a 30-footer for eagle and a 2-up lead, and they closed out Woods and Els on the next hole for a 3 and 1 victory.
“Sergio hit two great golf shots on 16 and made a beautiful putt,” Woods said. “They both played really solid. They put a lot of pressure on us. Ernie and I didn’t quite get it done.”
It was the fifth version of Monday Night Golf, the made-for-TV exhibition designed to bring golf to prime time. This one featured the best golf and the least amount of fun.
All four of them were grinding, halving seven straight holes on the back nine as Mickelson and Garcia, who never trailed, tried to protect their lead.
Els hit his approach on the 16th into the water, while Woods caught a bunker left of the green and blasted out to 6 feet.
Garcia, who had missed several birdie putts that could have given his team a big lead, finally came through with a 30-footer that was true as soon as it left his putter.
“We need revenge,” Els said with a laugh.
It was only the second time Woods has lost since the Monday night exhibitions began in 1999, both times to Garcia.
He lost to the Spaniard in 2000 at Bighorn the last time it was a head-to-head competition. Even with the Big Easy at his side, Woods couldn’t get enough putts to drop.
“It would have been quite exciting if Tiger and Ernie had holed some putts on the back,” Garcia said.
Woods went back to his old Titleist driver for the first time in 18 months, but that was never a problem on the Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.
He had a 10-foot birdie putt on the 12th to square the match, but missed. He missed from 12 feet on the 13th, pulled an 18-foot eagle putt on the 14th, and tugged at his cap when his 25-foot birdie on the 15th stopped on the edge of the cup.
“I had good looks at putts on three holes in a row and I didn’t make them,” Woods said. “That was key to getting back to even.”
Garcia and Mickelson were a combined 8 under through 17 holes. They each earned $600,000 from the $1.7 million purse, while Woods and Els got $250,000 each.
After three years at Bighorn in the California desert, the match moved to the Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, an expansive enclave in the foothills north of San Diego with a whiff of chardonay in the air.
Mickelson lives in the community, something he was quick to share with the others - as if the pro-Lefty cheers didn’t tip them off.
“You guys need any help with lines and club selection, just let me know,” he said as they walked off the first tee - Mickelson in the fairway, Woods and Els in the rough.
It was a rare moment of levity. This version of Monday Night Golf provided a high level of skill, but they were all business from the opening tee.
Part of that was Woods and Els having to catch up from the start.
Mickelson hit a wedge into 10 feet for birdie on No. 1, and with Lefty inside 3 feet on the third hole, Garcia made a 10-footer for a 2-up lead.
Woods and Els were lucky it wasn’t worse.
They didn’t pick up their first birdie until Els chipped in from 30 feet on No. 4, which Mickelson matched with a 10-foot putt. When Garcia holed a 12-foot birdie on the sixth, he and Mickelson were 3 up.
Woods gave his side a spark with a 3-wood out of a fluffy lie in the rough that stopped on the fringe, pin-high, about 30 feet away. He missed the eagle putt, but Garcia helped out by three-putting from the fringe, the last one from 5 feet.
Woods followed with a 5-iron to 2 feet on the 224-yard eighth, and Els’ matched Garcia’s birdie on No. 9 to keep the deficit at one hole going to the back nine.
Garcia, whose putting has been a liability this year, continued to make the best two players in golf his chief charity. He missed on a good chance at eagle from 20 feet on No. 10, then missed birdie putts of 5 and 12 feet on the next two holes.
Still, Woods and Els didn’t take advantage.
Their best chance came on the par-5 14th, when Woods hit a 3-iron out of a bunker to 18 feet, and Els had a 30-foot putt for eagle. Mickelson and Garcia both missed the green, but kept their lead when Els and Woods both badly missed their eagle putts.
The victory doesn’t count, but it felt like one for Mickelson and Garcia.
“Sergio and I haven’t played to our level of expectations, and I don’t know what to say about that,” Mickelson said. “But on any given day, anyone can win. And we happened to beat the best two players in the world.”
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