By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
MARANA, Ariz. -- Tiger Woods was running out of holes, but not hope.
He had never fallen three holes behind and come back to win in match play as a professional, and his predicament looked particularly dire Wednesday when he took a penalty drop in the desert to lose another hole against J.B. Holmes with five to play.
What followed was a charge that had Woods pumping his fists and Holmes shaking his head.
"You're playing the best player in the world, 3 up with five to play," Holmes said. "I just said, 'Don't do anything stupid. Make him beat you.' And he did. What do you do?"
Woods won four straight holes with three birdies and a 35-footer for eagle to produce another stunning rally in the desert, this one allowing him to escape in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship.
The last time Woods played, he shot 31 on the back nine of the Dubai Desert Classic to rally from a four-shot deficit to win. In the high desert north of Tucson, he played the back nine in 30 for a 1-up victory.
"For some reason, momentum just goes your way," Woods said. "You just get on a run. Sometimes the run is early in the round, sometimes middle or late. It just so happened the last two rounds, it was late. But at least it happened today. At least I had a run. I wasn't playing good enough to win the match unless I had a run."
Fourth-seeded Ernie Els made a run to the airport, losing in the first round for the fourth straight time at this World Golf Championship. He shot 40 on the front nine to fall 6-down, and suffered his worst defeat in 15 matches, 6 and 5 to Jonathan Byrd.
The other top seeds advanced, but not by much.
Phil Mickelson, fresh off his victory at Riviera, withstood back-to-back birdie putts of 40 feet by Pat Perez by making a 4-foot par putt on the 18th for a 1-up victory. Steve Stricker got a small measure of revenge against Daniel Chopra. After losing to him in a four-hole playoff last month at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, Stricker defeated him in 20 holes with an 8-footer for birdie.
Woods started his match by hitting a tee shot into the desert and out of bounds.
"One of the worst shots I've hit in a long time," Woods said.
It looked as though it might end early until a 15-foot birdie on the 14th hole, followed by a meaningless birdie putt from 18 feet on the 15th after Holmes' three-putt. Woods' foot slipped on his downswing at the par-3 16th, and he found a footprint in his line when he arrived on the green, but he rolled in a third straight birdie putt to square the match.
That led to the kind of theater this format always delivers, and Woods came through again.
From 287 yards in the rough, a crisp breeze behind him, Woods hammered a 5-wood that stopped 35 feet from the hole for eagle. Holmes had 45 feet and left it short, and Woods only wanted to make sure he didn't hit it too hard.
It was perfect.
"It was just one of those things where everything kind of turned my way," Woods said.
Holmes missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th -- the same distance he had when he beat Mickelson three weeks ago in Phoenix -- that would have extended the match.
"He struggled a little bit early in the round, and then made every putt he looked at when he needed to," Holmes said. "That's why he's the best."
Four of the top eight seeds were gone after the first day of the Match Play, one of the most chaotic days in golf. Jim Furyk (No. 6) continued to struggle with his game, losing to Colin Montgomerie, 3 and 2; Justin Rose (7) fell to Rod Pampling, 2 and 1; and Rory Sabbatini, who played college golf at Arizona, lost to Bradley Dredge, 4 and 3.
"You can never really fancy your chances in this format," Lee Westwood said after making eight birdies in a 3-and-2 victory over Brandt Snedeker. "This is the kind of week where you unpack, but you don't move stuff too far away from your suitcase."
Woods appeared to have his bags packed.
He had said Tuesday that when players fall behind two or three holes, they generally lose. That looked certain when Holmes took a 3-up lead through five holes, and he staved off one charge with a birdie on the ninth to stay 2 holes ahead.
Woods had to take an unplayable lie in the desert on the 13th, swatting the bag with his driver after taking his drop. Then came a charge that sent cheers resounding across the desert fauna, starting with his birdie on the 14th.
"Very, very fortunate to advance," said Woods, who has not made it past the third round since winning in 2004.
Next up is Arron Oberholser, who is playing with an injured shoulder. He made his '08 debut by beating Mike Weir, 3 and 1. Oberholser grew up with Woods through the California junior golf ranks, but he has never faced him in match play, and could not recall playing against him in any format since a college event hosted by USC.
"I remember it because he hit some shots where I just sat there with my jaw on the floor," Oberholser said.
The Woods-Holmes match was among only eight that went the distance, the fewest number since 2002.
The blowouts came from Woody Austin, who birdied his first four holes against Toru Taniguchi; Niclas Fasth, who holed a bunker shot for eagle on No. 1 and buried Richard Green of Australia; and Byrd making Els wish he had taken that holiday in South Africa instead of changing his mind and coming to Arizona for an event that continues to haunt him.
All won by a 6-and-5 margin.
"You just don't know what to expect in match play," Fasth said. "It's like flipping a coin. It really doesn't matter who you play, except that nobody wants to play Tiger in the first round."
For the longest time, Holmes had no problems with that. And even in defeat, he took positives from making Woods beat him.
"I didn't fall apart, like you see some people," he said. "I gave him a battle, and today he just won."