Woods-Mickelson showdown won't come to fruition (again)

MARANA, Ariz. -- Sometimes you just have pay homage to your opponent, pat him on the back and say job well done. Other than make a few more birdies, that's about all Phil Mickelson could do at the Accenture Match Play Championship on Thursday.

Mickelson didn't make a bogey at The Gallery Golf Club. He had five birdies and an eagle, and just a single "5" on his scorecard.

And he lost.

Australia's Stuart Appleby, despite going 2-down after two holes, battled back to make nine birdies and defeat Mickelson 2 and 1.

And, once again, golf fans are denied the match they most want to see, a showdown between the game's top-ranked players -- Tiger Woods and Mickelson.

For 10 years, we've been waiting for that pairing in this tournament, a development that seems about as likely as the two sharing swing tips. Because of their high world rankings, Woods and Mickelson could not have met here until the 36-hole final on Sunday.

And given the unpredictability of match play, it would have been remarkable had it occurred.

But the way the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world have been performing, perhaps it would have been fitting.

Woods, of course, has won both of his starts this year. Mickelson, after a playoff loss to J.B. Holmes three weeks ago at the FBR Open, won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday, his 33rd career PGA Tour victory.

One day after Woods had to rally to defeat Holmes, 1-up, he had a relatively easy day against Arron Oberholser, losing just one hole and cruising to a 3 and 2 victory. He will play Aaron Baddeley on Friday.

Mickelson was unable to do his part, but it's hard to find fault with the way he played. After defeating Pat Perez on Wednesday, Mickelson birdied the first two holes and made an eagle at the fifth -- and still found himself 1-down at the turn.

And after making birdie on three of the first four holes on the back nine, Mickelson trailed going to the 17th, where he made a par and Appleby closed him out with a birdie.

A Woods-Mickelson showdown will have to wait until next month in Florida or maybe even at the Masters.

"We were even, and he birdied three of the last five holes that we played," Mickelson said. "And I thought [at] 17, I needed to make a 4 to extend the match. I felt like I hit the shot where I wanted to, just it ended up not where I wanted it and I had a tough time making 4. I wanted a chance on 18, but unfortunately, I didn't get it."

Mickelson did hit the par-5 17th green in two, but left himself an awkward eagle putt that he left well short of the pin. Mickelson then missed the birdie putt. Appleby laid up, wedged onto the green and made the putt for the victory.

"It was really good, quality golf," said Appleby, 36, a winner of eight PGA Tour titles. "There was very little poor golf thrown in there. It was a solid match all day. It was just a matter of me getting some shots together, sneaking my way ahead late in the day and then probably a slightly unexpected birdie on 17 that shut it out for him."

It was a surprising development given Appleby's utter lack of success in match play events and Mickelson's recent good form. Appleby had been bounced in the first round six times in nine previous appearances at the Match Play and made it past the second round just once. He's never advanced past the third round, where he will play Justin Leonard on Friday.

And then there's the Presidents Cup. Appleby has played in the competition which pits the United States against an International team five times. And he is 0-5 in the Sunday singles competition, losing last fall to Charles Howell III.

"I don't know," said Appleby, who defeated Tim Clark in the first round 3 and 2. "Probably the last two days I've got into my game more, into what I'm doing and not taking a huge amount of notice on what the other players are doing. I'd probably have to say I've become a bit more internal in my play and I'm playing well, too, so I guess that helps you focus on the things that you are doing better.

"This time last year in this event, I was driving it horrendous and very, very frustrated. I remember being very, very frustrated on the range last year after my first-round loss here. So I got more internal with my process and a bit more relaxed."

It helps that Appleby has made 14 birdies and no bogeys in the 33 holes he's played.

Of course, in this format, that means nothing when the next match begins -- a fact that Mickelson knows all too well.

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.