MARANA, Ariz. — Graeme McDowell pulled off the biggest surprise Wednesday in an opening round of comebacks in the Match Play Championship.
McDowell was 4 down through seven holes and still three holes behind with three to play when he staged an improbable rally against Florida neighbor Gary Woodland. McDowell seized on Woodland’s mistakes to win the next three holes, and then put him away with a 6-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole.
"I’m sure he’s extremely disappointed right now — and I’m extremely elated," McDowell said. "I’m surprised to be sitting here, having won. Yeah, I hit a couple of quality shots down the last couple of holes, but he had mistakes, as well. It’s a brutal format."
It’s certainly brutal for 32 players that were headed home, a list that included Zach Johnson (3), Dustin Johnson (6) and Steve Stricker (9) among the top 10 seeds.
Eleven of the 32 matches went at least 18 holes, with five of them decided in overtime.
PGA champion Jason Dufner also rallied with some help. He was three down with five holes to play when Scott Stallings chopped up two holes, Dufner made a key birdie, and Dufner won on the first extra hole with a par.
Eight players trailed with six holes remaining and went on to win. That included Henrik Stenson, who avoided becoming the third straight No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round of golf’s most unpredictable tournament.
Stenson, awarded the top seed because Tiger Woods and Masters champion Adam Scott chose not to play, trailed Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand with five holes to play. The big Thai struggled with his putter, however, missing a 4-footer for par on the 14th to lose the hole, and an 8-footer for birdie on the 15th that would have given him the lead. Stenson made a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th, and won the match when Aphibarnrat failed to match his birdie on the 17th by missing from 5 feet.
"I’m still in shock," Stenson said. "It was a tough match."
Second-seeded Justin Rose held off Scott Piercy, and No. 4 seed Rory McIlroy had little trouble against Boo Weekley to advance to the round of 32 on Thursday.
Richard Sterne of South Africa had no trouble against Zach Johnson in a 5-and-4 victory. It was the fourth straight year the American lost in the first round. Dustin Johnson fell behind early to Peter Hanson and never caught up in losing, 4 and 3. Dustin Johnson now has lost in the opening round five times in six appearances.
Stricker, who only decided to come to Match Play after his brother had liver transplant surgery over the weekend, lost to George Coetzee of South Africa.
The day was filled with blowouts and overtime.
Sergio Garcia missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to beat Marc Leishman. They wound up playing the longest match of the opening round, which Garcia won in 22 holes with a 6-foot birdie on No. 4.
Brandt Snedeker never led in his match against David Lynn of England. He halved the match with a par on the 17th hole, and then won in 20 holes when Lynn failed to birdie the easy par-5 second hole.
Harris English beat Lee Westwood in 15 holes, while Matteo Manassero sent Luke Donald home after only 14 holes.
In other matches:
* Rickie Fowler, coming off three straight missed cuts, caught Ian Poulter on a bad day and sent the Ryder Cup star packing with a 2-and-1 victory. "It feels like a big win after those missed cuts," Fowler said. "It was nice to be the underdog. I had nothing to lose."
* Jordan Spieth made back-to-back birdies and then put away Pablo Larrazabal on the 18th hole when both drove into the same bunker. Larrazabal’s shot went 5 yards further and was blocked by the lip. "That could easily have been me," Spieth said.
* Bubba Watson was giving holes away early before winning three straight holes on the back nine in a 2-and-1 win over Mikko Ilonen of Finland.
Still, no match epitomized the wild nature of this format than McDowell’s win over Woodland.
They live down the street from each other at Lake Nona. They practiced together last week. They flew out to Arizona together. And they had to play each other in the first round on a course where Woodland figured to have a big advantage with his length. McDowell played a practice round with Brooks Koepka, the first alternate, to get used to being outdriven by some 50 yards.
His worst fears were realized. Woodland already was 4 up through seven holes. McDowell pecked away at the lead, but still thought he had blown it when Woodland made his 8-foot birdie on the 15th hole, and McDowell missed from 6 feet.
"I thought it was over," McDowell said. "You’re not coming back from 3 down against a guy that’s playing as well as him. Yeah, I’m still going to try to hit my shots. But it required a mistake from him to give me half a sniff, even."
Woodland obliged. His shot on the par-3 16th sailed over the green, and it took two chips to get on the putting surface. Woodland had wedge into the 17th and pulled it well to the left. McDowell made a 12-foot birdie, and then squared the match when Woodland went from the left bunker to the right bunker on the 18th and conceded the hole.
One birdie later, it was over.
"It feels like a Sunday afternoon on Wednesday," McDowell said.