Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 26, 2012

Rory And Lee Provide The Drama, But Hunter Makes The Putts

For all of the early round upsets, in the end the Accenture Match Play Championship went according to form. Not the form defined by the seeding of the 64-player field, which placed the golfers into four 16-man brackets based upon their spot in the Official World Golf Rankings. Rather it was the form that ultimately decides most of the PGA Tour’s weekly stroke play events. The golfer who was unquestionably the hottest man in the field from the opening tee shot last Wednesday until the final concession of a short putt on Sunday afternoon took home the trophy and the $1.4 million first place check. That’s never a certainty at the Match Play, where even a player having a very good week might have the misfortune of running up against a competitor having one exceptional day.

But this week Hunter Mahan, the 29-year old American with three previous PGA Tour wins, was simply on a scoring roll. On his six match march to his second win in one of the four annual World Golf Championship events, exclusive tournaments with fields limited to the top players on the planet, Mahan played a total of 96 holes. He made 35 birdies, an astonishing birdie percentage of 36.5%. By way of comparison, Webb Simpson led the Tour last year in birdie percentage, recording an under-par score on a hole 24.3% of the time. This week Mahan, thanks to solid iron play and a wealth of confidence in a new Ping Nome putter that he just put in his bag, was recording birdies more than half again as often as last year’s Tour leader in the statistic.

With a scoring touch like that it’s no surprise that Mahan trailed for a total of only seven holes throughout his matches, and never by more than two-down. His toughest match turned out to be his first, when he was behind for a total of five holes against Zach Johnson. Eventually that match went into overtime, with Mahan winning in 19 holes. After that Mahan trailed Y. E. Yang for two holes early on, before rallying to easily oust the 2009 PGA Championship winner, 5&3. That was the first of three consecutive matches in which Mahan simply crushed his competition. After Yang it was two better known and more highly regarded fellow-Americans; Steve Stricker who fell 4&3 in the third round, then Matt Kuchar who was routed 6&5 in the quarterfinals.

Up until last year the Match Play final was a 36-hole match, which meant that both the quarterfinals and semifinals were played on Saturday, with Sunday reserved for the lengthy showdown between the last two surviving golfers, and an 18-hole consolation match between the semifinal losers. But last year’s change to an 18-hole final also led to a change in the weekly schedule so that the two semifinal matches are now played Sunday morning, with the championship and consolation matches following in the afternoon. For all of the concern that television executives have about the match play format not ensuring the presence of big names or compelling matches on the weekend, this year’s event produced one of the most anticipated matchups in years in the semifinals. Both #1 seeds in their respective brackets, world #2 Rory McIlroy and world #3 Lee Westwood squared off in what amounted to a spellbinding drama in three acts. Unfortunately NBC’s main network coverage didn’t begin until Sunday afternoon. Thus the schedule change meant that the most dramatic match of the week was broadcast to a decidedly smaller audience on NBC’s Golf Channel cable network.

There was an air of a grudge match in this showdown between two members of the European Ryder Cup team who at one time were close friends. That relationship cooled last fall, when McIlroy split from Chubby Chandler’s International Sports Management agency to be represented by Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management. Westwood is both a long-time ISM client and an investor in the company, so the departure of the young superstar from Northern Ireland doubtless stung the Englishman in more ways than one. There was also the fact that with the shock defeat of world #1 Luke Donald in the tournament’s opening round, either McIlroy or Westwood had the chance to ascend to the top of the rankings by winning the championship.

As the two teed off in the chill of a desert morning, the 38-year old Westwood was dominant in the early holes. He sandwiched birdies at the 2nd and 4th around a McIlroy bogey at the 3rd to claim a quick 3-up lead. But the match moved into its second phase at the 5th hole when Westwood missed the green with his approach and failed to save par. McIlroy won the hole with a two-foot par putt, the first of numerous short putts that both players were made to sink during a game in which the words “that’s good” went virtually unheard. That began a string of four McIlroy wins in five holes as the 22-year old completely changed the complexion of the match, going from 3-down to 1-up at the turn.

The pivotal hole of the match was one which neither player won. With McIlroy still one up at the par-5 11th, his second shot headed far right. It bounced off the cart path and seemed headed for the desert, possibly into an unplayable lie or even out-of-bounds. Instead it caromed off some rocks back towards the hole, winding up in the rough just beside the cart path, leaving McIlroy with a comparatively easy chip to the green. Instead of a certain Westwood win to square the match, the two halved the hole with birdies. When McIlroy sank a long birdie putt on the 12th and then nearly eagled the 13th, it appeared that the rout was on. Yet Westwood provided one last bit of drama. Three down on the 15th tee, he smashed a driver down the short par-4, the ball ending on the green in eagle range. His tap-in birdie cut the lead to two holes with three to play, and brought to mind the fact that McIlroy has sometimes had trouble closing out a tournament. In the end though, there were not enough holes left. When Westwood’s par attempt slid by the cup at the 17th, McIlroy was a 3&1 winner and slated to meet Mahan.

Rory McIlroy’s almost certain date with the #1 ranking will have to wait, because Hunter Mahan’s putter was every bit as hot on Sunday afternoon as it had been all week. The final was all square through five before Mahan reeled off four wins in the next five holes. While McIlroy rallied on the back nine, where both golfers played brilliantly, Mahan’s early lead was too great. His 2&1 victory made him the first American winner of the Match Play since 2008 and only the second in the past seven years.

For Mahan, victory at this particular event has to be especially sweet. At the 2010 Ryder Cup, he was paired against Graeme McDowell in the final singles match. Trailing 2-down, Mahan needed to get up and down at the 17th hole to extend the match. Had he been able to do so, and gone on to win the 18th to secure a tie, the U.S. would have retained the Cup. Instead he duffed his chip, leaving the ball short of the putting surface. Even half an hour later, while the European celebration continued, Mahan was inconsolable. Now with a hot new putter in his golf bag and after a remarkable birdie binge in the Arizona desert, whenever Hunter Mahan thinks about match play, he’ll have a much, much happier memory to bring to mind.

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