Epic McDowell chops down Woodland at the 19th
 Oooh, that was close. Graeme McDowell speaks to the media after his come from behind win over Gary Woodland in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

Oooh, that was close. Graeme McDowell speaks to the media after his come from behind win over Gary Woodland in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Graeme McDowell produced a comeback worthy of Lazarus himself when he recovered from three down with three to play to beat big-hitting pal Gary Woodland with a birdie at the 19th in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

The Ulsterman, who had been four down after just seven holes, was well and truly reeling before the man from Kansas threw the match away with a series of forced and unforced errors coming down the stretch.

McDowell did not need much encouragement to pounce and he used all his matchplay nous to win four holes in a row and clinch a memorable victory by rolling in a six footer for a sweet birdie three at the first extra hole.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to have got through that match,” a relieved but delighted McDowell said at the finish.

“You could feel the momentum swinging. It wasn’t hard for me to feel positive momentum because I hadn’t felt any all day.

“He had pretty much pummelled me for the first nine holes — like it would have been in a boxing ring and I would not like to fight the guy.

“He’s a talented player and he didn’t make mistakes and just threw the kitchen sink at me. But just when you think you are dead and buried, [you get] at little luck from the gods.

“Three down with three to go, you are just trying to get to the next hole but he goes over the back and makes bogey on 16. I get to 17 and made the putt. Made it to 18 and he makes the mistake after I hit a good second shot in.”

Rory McIlroy also joined McDowell in the second round as had too much firepower and overall class and despite losing focus late in the match, he easily despatched Boo Weekley 3 and 2 to set up a mouthwatering clash with the impressive American Harris English today.

Nothing that McIlroy did could match the sheer drama of a comeback by McDowell that owed as much to Woodland’s inexperience as it did to the Rathmore man’s gritty determination.

Having lost the first three holes to birdie-birdie-par figures, the 2010 US Open champion found himself four down after seven and facing a first round exit for the fifth time in seven years.

After halving the par-five eighth in birdie, McDowell clawed his way back to two down by draining a 30 footer for birdie at the ninth and a nine footer for a winning birdie four at the 11th.

When Woodland birdied the 15th to go three up with three to play, all looked lost.

But the 29-year old American opened the door by handing McDowell the par-three 16th when his six-iron bounced through the green by 15 yards and he failed to make the putting surface with his chip.

McDowell applied more pressure with a super second to 12 feet at the par-four 17th. Woodland hit a poor wedge to 40 feet and was facing an eight footer for par but McDowell saved him the bother by holing his putt to take the match to the last.

Woodland had outdriven the Portrush star by more than 40 yards for most of the day but his decision to take an iron off the tee backfired.

Faced with 210 yards to the flag, he bunkered his approach and with McDowell only 12 feet away in two, he knifed his recovery into the bunker on the opposite side of the green and failed to make the green in four.

At the first extra hole it was McDowell who prevailed, hitting to six feet and holing the putt for a sensational victory that sets up a second round clash with Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, who beat Martin Kaymer 2 and 1.

“He looked unbeatable,” a relieved but delighted McDowell said at the finish. “He hit a six iron all over the flag at 16 and I thought, the Cadillacs are circling and I figured my manager had a plane ticket booked for me and I was going home.”

McIlroy was four up on Weekley with seven to play but bogeyed the 12th and had to wait until the 16th to close out a 3 and 2 victory that featured a bizarre incident on the 15th.

 Rory McIlroy shows his power at the fourth. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy shows his power at the fourth. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

After hitting his drive left into the desert, he found his ball resting next to a rock but when he tried to chop back to the fairway his ball shot across the fairway and a spectator, trying to dodge the missile, fell into a patch of jumping cholla.

Two down with three to play, Weekely had a 14 footer to win the 16th but three putted instead, missing a three and a half footer for par.

“Today was good for the first sort of 11 or 12 holes, which is good,” McIlroy said “Then I went four up through 11 and I got a little complacent, I think. Lost a little bit of concentration. I probably went a couple of holes further than I should have. 

“Just getting through to the next round is what this tournament is all about, and I've been able to do that.

“I feel like I have been really driving the ball well for the past three or four months and it has really helped my game. It’s the foundation of my game and if I can drive it long and straight it gives me a big advantage.”

McIlroy knows he faces a tougher test in the second round against the impressive young American English, who thrashed Lee Westwood 5 and 3.

“It's a long week, especially the deeper you go in the tournament,” McIlroy said. “It's all about just trying to beat that guy that's in front of you. I've got a tough opponent in Harris English tomorrow.”

If McDowell and McIlroy were happy, it was a mixed day for the rest of European contingent with 10 of the 24 strong challenge surviving.

Ian Poulter was both fuming and frustrated after his third opening day defeat in the last four years.

“I’m pissed off,” Poulter said after losing 2 and 1 to Rickie Fowler. “I gave him three holes and you just cannot do that. I’m just really disappointed because I didn’t put him under any pressure at all.”

Top seed Henrik Stenson beat Thailand’s Aphibarnrat at the 17th, Thomas Björn saw off Francesco Molinari 2 and 1 while Sergio Garcia had to go to the 22nd to beat Australian Marc Leishman.

Matteo Manassero comfortably beat  Luke Donald 5 and 4 while Ernie Els admitted he was given a let off by Stephen Gallacher.

The Scot, who had led by two holes with three to play, missed a seven footer at the 18th for the win and lost to a par at the 19th.

“I think the putt on 18 really bothered him, because he hit a good putt,” Els said. “How that stayed out, I don't know.

“Going down 19, you know, obviously the tide turned on my side.  I feel for him because he definitely should have closed me out.” 

Jonas Blixt, Victor Dubuisson, Peter Hanson and Justin Rose also won, boosting hopes of a first European winner since Donald in 2011.

WGC-Accenture Match Play

First round

1 Rickie Fowler (53) bt Ian Poulter (12) 2 and 1

2 Jimmy Walker (21) bt Branden Grace (44) 5 and 4

3 Bubba Watson (11) bt Mikko Ilonen (54) 2 and 1

4 Jonas Blixt (43) bt Keegan Bradley (22) 2 and 1

5 George Coetzee (56) bt Steve Stricker (9) 3 and 1

6 Patrick Reed (41) bt Graham DeLaet (24) 1 up

7 Jordan Spieth (10) bt Pablo Larrazabal (55) 2 up

8 Thomas Bjorn (23) bt Francesco Molinari (42) 2 and 1

9 Sergio Garcia (6) bt Marc Leishman (60)  22 holes

10 Bill Haas (28) bt Miguel A. Jimenez (10) 4 and 3

11 Peter Hanson (59) bt Dustin Johnson (5) 4 and 3

12 Victor Dubuisson (27) bt Kevin Streelman (38)  5 and 4

13 Jason Day (8) bt Thorbjorn Olesen (57) 2 up

14 Billy Horschel (40) bt Jamie Donaldson (25) 6 and 5

15 Matt Kuchar (7) bt Bernd Wiesberger (58) 3 and 2

16 Ryan Moore (26) bt Joost Luiten (39) 1 up

17 Charl Schwartzel (13) bt Kevin Stadler (52) 3 and 2

18 Jim Furyk (20) bt Chris Kirk (45)  2 and 1

19 Graeme McDowell (14) bt Gary Woodland (51) 19 holes

20 Hideki Matsuyama (19) bt Martin Kaymer (46)  2 and 1

21 Brandt Snedeker (17) bt David Lynn (49) 20 holes

22 Webb Simpson (17) bt Thongchai Jaidee (48) 3 and 2

23 Jason Dufner (15) bt Scott Stallings (50)  19 holes

24 Matteo Manassero (47) bt Luke Donald (18)  5 and 4

25 Rory McIlroy (4) bt Boo Weekley (61)  3 and 2

26 Harris English (36) bt Lee Westwood (29)  5 and 3

27 Richard Sterne (62) bt Zach Johnson (3)  5 and 4

28 Hunter Mahan (30) bt Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (35) 3 and 2

29 Henrik Stenson (1) bt Kiradech Aphibarnrat (64) 2 and 1

30 Louis Oosthuizen (32) bt Nick Watney (33) 1 up

31 Justin Rose (2) bt Scott Piercy (63) 1 up

32 Ernie Els (31) bt Stephen Gallacher (33) 19 holes