Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 27, 2011

One Tournament, Two Winners

Most PGA Tour events have only one winner. But when play wrapped up at this week’s Accenture Match Play Championship, two golfers had plenty of reasons to smile.

Even before he arrived at the first tee for the start of today’s final, Martin Kaymer was already a big winner. By virtue of reaching the finals, as he did on Saturday when he outlasted first Miguel Angel Jimenez and then Bubba Watson by identical 1-up scores in two taut quarterfinal and semifinal matches, the 26-year old German was assured of becoming the #1 golfer in the world when the Official World Golf Rankings are updated Monday. It’s been a meteoric rise for Kaymer, who becomes the fourteenth #1 and the second youngest since the ranking system was introduced in 1986 (sorry, you get zero points for correctly guessing the youngest).

While still competing as an amateur, Kaymer won a professional tournament on a German mini-tour in 2005. He turned pro and played on that same tour for the first half of 2006, winning five times in fourteen events. In the second round of that year’s Habsberg Classic, Kaymer bogied the second hole to go to one over par. He quickly erased that blemish, recording twelve birdies and an eagle over the final sixteen holes to shoot 59. He then moved on to the Challenge Tour, the European PGA’s equivalent of our developmental Nationwide Tour for the final few months of 2006. He won twice in just eight starts and wound up fourth on the Challenge Tour’s year-long money list. At the end of 2006, as Kaymer prepared to move up to play full-time on the European PGA Tour, he was ranked 164th in the world.

Over the next four seasons Kaymer marched steadily up the rankings. In 2007 he won the Sir Henry Cotton Award as the European Tour’s rookie of the year, and finished 76th in the world rankings, passing mentor Bernhard Langer to become the highest ranked German. He won the opening event of the 2008 European season, which propelled him to 34th, making him at that point the only golfer in the top 50 under the age of 25. He won again in June of that year and by season’s end was ranked 25th. He added two more victories in 2009 and moved up to 13th in the world.

Then after all of that mediocrity last year he finally found his game. In 2010 Kaymer won four tournaments and topped the European Tour’s money list. The most significant of those victories was the PGA Championship last August, when he burst onto the scene for most American fans. On that Sunday at Whistling Straits, while most of the focus was on Dustin Johnson’s unfortunate two-stroke penalty on the final hole of regulation and Bubba Watson’s ill-timed decision to go for broke from the rough on the final hole of the playoff, Kaymer played rock steady golf through the final 18 and the 3-hole playoff to capture the Wanamaker Trophy and his first major championship. When the final 2010 rankings were released at the end of December, Kaymer had climbed to 3rd, just behind Tiger Woods and new #1 Lee Westwood.

He hasn’t slowed down this year, lapping the field with an 8-stroke victory in Abu Dhabi in January. His five wins worldwide in the past fourteen months are the most by any male professional. Like so many of his generation, Kaymer is prodigiously long off the tee. He also is a solid putter with a classic, uncomplicated stroke; and he attributes his enormous recent success to improvement in his short game. Perhaps most important, on the course he exhibits a stoicism and calm that belie his youth. While golf has moved into a new era in which there is no longer a single overwhelmingly dominant player, Kaymer’s ability and his attitude should keep him at or near the top for years to come.

While Kaymer was the only one of the four top seeds at the Match Play to make it past Thursday’s second round, in the end as always the tournament wasn’t about seedings or world rankings; but about the actual shots struck around the Dove Mountain course, with its stunning vistas of the Sonoran Desert and Tucson Mountains. On Sunday Kaymer was up against Briton Luke Donald.

The 33-year old Donald turned pro in 2001, and won twice in Europe and twice in the U.S. in his first five seasons as a professional. But since triumphing at the Honda Classic in 2006, Donald had done everything but win. He was a frequent contender, compiling an impressive number of top ten finishes but never again reaching the winner’s circle. He finally broke a winless drought of more than four years when he won the Madrid Masters last May.

But while he may not have a long list of tournament wins, Donald’s consistent if unspectacular game was made to order for this week’s event, as his match play record attests. As an amateur Donald went 7-1 for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team in the 1999 and 2001 Walker Cup matches against the U.S. In three Ryder Cup appearances for Team Europe his record is 8-2-1. And he came to the first tee Sunday sporting a record of 15-6 at this event. Three of his first five matches had been routs. On Saturday, while Kaymer was taken to the 18th hole by both Jimenez and Watson, Donald steamrolled Ryan Palmer 5 & 4 in the morning quarterfinal, and then trampled Matt Kuchar, who led the 2010 PGA Tour money list, 6 & 5 in the afternoon semifinal. Donald set a Match Play record by needing to play just 73 holes to make it to the final. Even more remarkable, he never trailed in any of his first five matches.

That mark of supremacy now extends to six matches, and Luke Donald is the 2011 Match Play champion and the other golfer to be flying out of Tucson with plenty of reasons to smile; 1.4 million reasons to be precise. Donald won three of the first five holes to race out to the early lead. As befits a world #1, Kaymer did not go quietly, fighting back to level the match at the turn. But Donald reclaimed the lead when he bested Kaymer in a putting duel for birdie on the par-5 11th. When Kaymer couldn’t find the green with his tee shot on the par-3 12th, Donald’s advantage doubled. At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before the match play virtuoso would be lofting the trophy.

Because of his steady consistency, including finishing in the top ten in exactly one-half of the tournaments he played in last year, Luke Donald came into this event ranked 9th in the world. His victory moves him all the way up to #3. While Kaymer seems certain to remain highly ranked for a good long time, whether Donald can stay there is less certain. Victories obviously count for more than top-ten’s, and Donald is known to have issues with hitting the ball both far and straight off the tee. But those concerns take nothing away from his dominating performance in the high desert this week. And for golfers as for all athletes, sometimes success breeds success.

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