After waiting more than eight months for their superstar to return, the golfing world watched on aghast here last night as the grand comeback of Tiger Woods was curtailed prematurely. It was Tim Clark who spoiled the party, turning out the lights in ruthless fashion.
Few expected Clark, a player ranked 32 places below the world No 1, to advance to the third round of the Accenture World Match Play Championship and even fewer anticipated the scoreline being 4&2. But with a performance that verged on the faultless, the South African claimed the biggest scalp in the game. Woods would have needed to have been at his very best to prevail. Unsurprisingly he wasn't.
Having been absent since last June and having undergone radical knee surgery, it was too much to expect Woods to skip back as if he had never been away. But such is the majesty of the man that it was irresistible not to anticipate yet another remarkable chapter to his story. And despite Clark's excellence here, there were still moments when it seemed that Woods would deliver the miraculous yet again.
This was particularly true on the par-four 14th after Clark had just gone three up. He appeared certain to increase his advantage as he found the green and Woods located sand. But with a flick of those magical wrists, Woods plopped the ball on to the green and from there it rolled into the hole. Suddenly he was only two down and the stage was set for the usual Tiger finale. Clark would roll over and the man would walk through.
Except the resurgence was a wicked illusion in the desert. Woods bogeyed the 15th after hitting his drive out of bounds, Clark birdied and then struck his tee-shot on the par-three 16th to four feet. It was over and despite the evidence of Clark's scorecards showing that he had been six under for the 16 holes, and that for the successive day he had avoided taking a bogey, the significance of the exit would inevitably be blown up. For his part, Woods appeared anything but distraught, accepting that he had come up against an inspired opponent. "I'm pleased with the way I played," he said. "I played well but couldn't get the ball in the hole. Tim is a really good player."
It is likely that Woods will return in two weeks time at the WGC CA Championship at Doral. How he will fare in the less volatile strokeplay format will be the real test, although there does not seem to be much wrong with his game. He certainly sprinkled the stardust on this championship and with respect to Clark it would have been so good for the event if he had progressed. For today, he would have met Rory McIlroy, the amazing teenager from Ulster who has added yet more substance to his huge reputation.
McIlroy was two down to Hunter Mahan, the Ryder Cup performer, with six holes remaining. But where Woods failed to launch a winning fight-back, McIlroy succeeded. The 19-year-old birdied four of that last half-dozen to make his date with Clark.
British and Irish interest will not end there, however. For England, this had already been a record-breaking event as six out of the seven entrants had made it into the second round. Now, incredibly, five remain, Lee Westwood the only loser yesterday and even he went to the fifth extra hole before succumbing to Stewart Cink.
Paul Casey won 6&4, Luke Donald came from two down with two left to beat Vijay Singh on the 19th, while Ian Poulter inched out Charl Schwartzel on the last. But perhaps the finest two displays came from two Accenture newcomers. Oliver Wilson repeated his Ryder Cup taming of the highly-rated Anthony Kim and Ross Fisher hammered Pat Perez 6&5. Stunning results. Although nothing would take the breath away as much as Tiger's exit. He is back. And yes, he is still human.