As most who follow the professional tours know, the Accenture Match Play Championship played at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain just north of Tucson, finished on time Sunday and this year’s champion is Matt Kuchar. He did it by beating last year’s champion, Hunter Mahan, 2 and 1.
As I joked in yesterday’s post, the vagaries of match play are so numerous, the more probable winners, either Mahan or Ian Poulter, would fall by the wayside and Kuchar would win. And that’s exactly what happened. But given the six holes of golf I saw Kuchar play on Sunday, this was no fluke.
The snow that fell on Wednesday’s first round captured a lot of attention — snow? in Arizona? — it was a natural. But Sunday’s windy conditions were just as brutal. The only difference was that you could play in the them. But just barely.
It was a little blustery at 7:10 Sunday morning, but the players had no idea what was in store for them. The wind kept increasing through the morning on its way to 25 to 35 mph, and its driving intensity chilled me through four layers a couple of times.
Kuchar was in that first match and took on young Aussie, Jason Day, in which he was down a hole early, got back to all square on the 4th and then cruised to a 4 and 3 victory from there. It was a little surprising because Day impressively took out the likes of Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson and Graeme McDowell. And also because Kuchar is known for not being particularly long and, however could he contend in that wind?
The 7:25 match was between Hunter Mahan and everybody’s favorite intense Englishman, Ian Poutler, and was slated to be an epic. So much so that after putting Saturday night’s post and myself to bed at 1 AM, I got up at 5:30 to be there. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Mahan was playing in the firmament of the golf gods and never trailed in the match. His drives were towering and accurate, his irons sharp and precise and his putter warmed the day because it was so hot. The other thing that was so impressive was his short game. Last year his drive on the driveable par-4 15th ended just on the upslope to the green and he putted it. From the same place this year, he chipped it to the same pin position. And went on to win definitively, 4 and 3. There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with a short game he trusts (e.g. Shane Lowry, the guy who took out Rory, and Luke Donald).
But Mahan’s world got turned upside down in his afternoon date with Kuchar. I quoted Mahan earlier in the week on how, in a match play competitive context, he hated to see the other player controlling the tee. Mahan wanted to hit every tee shot first. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the tee until the 11th, but by then he was already 4-down and the match appeared over.
Actually, it appeared over to me a long time before that. For all the flash and dash he exhibited against Poulter, he looked flat to me coming out in the afternoon. On the par-3 6th — with the wind howling downwind and Mahan 2-down — Kuchar stuffed it for an easy birdie. It was such a bold, in-your-face shot because there was only six yards to the back of the green and the falloff to the desert below.
With the unrelenting wind, I thought to myself, “This is over. Maybe I should walk in to watch the rest on television.” When Mahan’s ball stopped on the front of the green eighty or so feet away from the pin, I started walking. Later, I asked him about it:
I was really impressed with how sharp you were in the morning matches, almost like you didn’t miss a shot, and it seemed to me like you came out a little flat after lunch. Was that your sense of it? And do you have any sense of why?
I have no sense of why. I hit two good shots on the first hole, played the second hole well, didn’t hit a great — didn’t have a great third hole. I don’t know why. It just was a bad stretch. I guess that’s just being a human, and I played a lot of good golf for a few days now, so I was probably due kind of a funky stretch there. And I just couldn’t make a putt on 5, and the three‑putt on 6 was — was it 6? The three‑putt on 6 was just kind of silly. I thought I made a good swing and left myself a difficult [very long] putt. But I shouldn’t have three‑putt that hole.
So your mind was still in it?
Mind was fine. Mind was great. I just wasn’t executing my shots very well. I felt good. You know, mind was — I just felt like I needed to get one and just get one on the board and then maybe I could get another one, and then you really never know from there.
For his part, even though I only watched six holes live, Kuchar was very, very impressive. He was playing like there was no wind. And for him, with his ski hat and snow gloves on, there was no cold (although his cheeks looked pretty rosy in the interview room later).
He kept his drives in play and went for pins with no apparent caution. He was doing to Mahan what Mahan had done to Poulter. I asked him about that 6th hole:
You went to 6 2‑up and then stuffed that tee shot in there, and I just thought that was an emphatic affirmation of which way the momentum was going. What was your sense of it?
Yeah, the holes were playing awfully hard up to that point. I think, what was it, [the par-5] No. 5, the up tees, I still hit driver and 3‑wood to get to the green, so I was able to sneak away with a couple par wins.
And then on 6, just got the right yardage, hit a great shot up there to basically gimme, and could really feel the momentum on my side at that point to stuff one in there. At that point, at 2‑up, you’re trying to go 3‑up. You get to 3‑up, you’re trying to go 4‑up. And it was certainly a great shot and a great opportunity to go 3‑up and try to keep the momentum going.
And he did until his bogey on 10 and Mahan’s birdie on 11; Gulp! Now just 2-up. He got one back with a birdie on the par-5 13th, but then Mahan won 14 and 16 to make it clear that was not going to just roll over: Kuchar, 1-up going to 17.
Both of them flared their drives into the right fairway bunker and in a cosmic undertaking that can only be attributed to the golf gods, Kuchar got a perfect lie while Mahan’s ball was sitting down in its own furrow. They were like ten feet away from each other.
Mahan couldn’t get the whole clubface on the ball and it fluttered down onto the hardpan desert and into a dead bush. With Kuchar in position to make a par, his only hope was a desperate lash for birdie, but his mighty blow barely moved the ball onto the grass and he graciously conceded.
The final score may only have been 2 and 1, but with the wind and cold and getting to 4-up against one of the best match play players in the game, it was more emphatic than that. You have to go see Matt Kuchar play in person. As much as he had already accomplished in the game, I think you’ll come away just as impressed as I was. This was a huge win.