Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 24, 2013

Through Snow And Wind, Kuchar Is Matchless

In many ways the Golf Club at Dove Mountain is an ideal location for the Accenture Match Play Championship, the first of four World Golf Championship tournaments that annually attract the top professionals from around the world. The course’s desert setting makes for picturesque television. The eighteen holes are a mix of extremely demanding ones and obvious scoring opportunities. Several are classic risk-reward holes, offering the player a choice of routes from tee to green. The greens themselves are heavily sloped, putting a premium on getting the ball close to the hole or opening the door to a three-putt.

But in one critical respect the course is a terrible location for the tournament, at least in February. Winter in the Sonoran Desert can mean unpredictable weather. Two years ago the championship and consolation matches on Sunday were interrupted when snow squalls whipped across the course. This year more meaningful snow fell on Wednesday, bringing the first day’s play to a halt shortly after it began. Four inches of snow fell before the storm passed, meaning play could not resume until midday on Thursday as the field waited for the winter sun to melt the coating of white. Friday’s start was delayed by frost, and on Sunday the thermometer never made it out of the low 40s for the semifinal matches in the morning and the consolation and championship matches in the afternoon. Conditions that would be merely uncomfortable were made brutal by winds that blew a steady 20 to 25 miles per hour throughout the day, with frequent gusts as much as 10 miles faster. In the consolation match, Australian Jason Day appeared dressed more for snowboarding than for golf. For both his semifinal win over Day and for the championship match against Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar wore a pair of heavy mittens whenever he wasn’t about to hit a shot or stroke a putt; thus spending the day looking like he was getting ready to take a lasagna out of the oven.

Co-sanctioned by all six leading professional tours around the world, the four WGC events are marketed as a series of tournaments showcasing the international appeal of golf, pitting the best players from all corners of the globe against one another in high-profile events with huge purses. All four WGC events offer prize money equal to or exceeding that offered by the traditional four major championships. Rory McIlroy won $1.445 million for his commanding eight-shot victory at the PGA Championship last August, the most recent major. On Sunday the winner’s share of the Match Play Championship was $1.5 million. Yet for all of the promotion and with all of that money at stake, one can’t help but wonder if an event that fans are expected to view as nearly as important as one of the majors should perhaps be staged at a locale with more reliable weather.

In the end it was the 34-year old Kuchar and his oven mitts who outlasted the snow, the wind, and six opponents to take home that $1.5 million check. Long before he did so the executives at NBC were brutally reminded of why the networks hate match play. The event’s top two seeds, McIlroy and Tiger Woods were both beaten in the first round. By the end of the second round of matches the third and fourth seeds, Luke Donald and Louis Oosthuizen, were on their way home as well. Also sent packing before the network took over the national broadcast from the Golf Channel on Saturday afternoon were highly ranked players and fan favorites like Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk. By the time the network went on the air the most familiar golfers still playing were U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and twelve-time PGA Tour winner Steve Stricker. Naturally, they both lost in the quarterfinals on Saturday afternoon.

But while the network may have rued the lack of big names on the weekend, the tournament from start to finish certainly wasn’t lacking in drama. Ireland’s Shane Lowry, the last man into the field, sank a four-foot par putt on the 18th green to defeat world #1 McIlroy in the first round, and then went on to become the first 64th seed to make it to the third round of the Match Play. In the first round Graeme McDowell won a taut battle with Padraig Harrington despite shooting just even par for his round. In contrast in the third round Stricker and fellow American Scott Piercy were both six-under par when Stricker finally prevailed. European Ryder Cup hero and 2010 Match Play winner Ian Poulter was his usual formidable self in this unique format, right up until Sunday morning’s semifinals. That’s when he fell behind defending champion Hunter Mahan early and was never able to fight back.

Having swept through last year’s tournament, Mahan continued his impressive play by marching to the finals against Kuchar this year. In the course of winning eleven consecutive matches over two years, Mahan went 169 holes without trailing in a match. That streak ended on the 4th hole of the final when a putt for par rolled past the hole, giving Kuchar a one-up lead. While Mahan was consistently longer than Kuchar off the tee, the latter’s short game was immaculate and especially vital given the tough conditions. Kuchar’s ability to get up and down allowed him to expand his lead to four-up at the turn.

As every amateur who has ever stood over a four-foot putt to win all three parts of a $2 Nassau at his local club knows, golf is ultimately a mental test. Nowhere is that more so than on tour, where the same four footer can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Never is the test more difficult than under brutal conditions such as the finalists weathered at Dove Mountain on Sunday. As Mahan tried to rally down the back nine, time and again Kuchar showed both the quality of his golf and the extent of his mental toughness. With his lead cut in half he rolled in a crucial birdie on the 12th to halve the hole. On the 15th his eagle chip ran seven feet past the cup and appeared to give Mahan an opening to cut the lead to one. But with the wind whipping across the green Kuchar calmly sank the comebacker and again preserved his lead. Two holes later, when Mahan’s second shot on the 17th landed in the middle of a bush in the desert, Matt Kuchar was the Match Play champion.

After a brilliant amateur and collegiate career, Kuchar won the 2002 Honda Classic not long after turning pro. But then his game stagnated, and by 2006 he had lost his Tour card. Rather than giving up, or wandering on the fringes of the game as many do, he completely rebuilt his swing and his game. He made it back to the PGA Tour and finally won a minor event in 2009. One year later he won one of the FedEx Cup playoff events, and then last year won the Players Championship. On Sunday he added a WGC win to a golfing resume that now lacks only a major championship to be complete. Along the way he’s improved his scoring average a stunning six years in a row. The talent on the Tour is so great these days that there’s a long list of really good golfers who have never won a major. As good as they all are, most of them never will. But given Matt Kuchar’s proven mental toughness, of all the golfers on that list it might not be wise to bet against him.

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