MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — For such a fickle format, the Match Play Championship sure does seem to produce the right winner.
Matt Kuchar had reason to pack a full suitcase for the high desert of Arizona based on his record in this tournament. He is the only player to reach the quarterfinals each of the last three years, and he wound up losing to the eventual champion the previous two times.
Sunday he went the distance to capture his first World Golf Championship.
Kuchar became only the second player in the 15-year history of the Match Play to win without ever seeing the 18th hole except in a practice round, or when the courtesy van ferrying him in after winning a match drove past the closing hole on the way to the clubhouse.
He played 96 holes in six rounds and only trailed after four of them.
He built a 4-up lead over Hunter Mahan in the championship match and held off a fierce rally on the back nine at Dove Mountain to close him out, 2 and 1, and add his name to an impressive list of winners.
“Match play I find to be such an amazing, unique format, so much fun to play and so much pressure,” Kuchar said. “It seems like each hole there’s so much momentum riding and so much pressure on every hole. To come out on top after six matches of playing the top 64 guys in the world, it’s an incredible feeling.”
One reason the PGA Championship abandoned match play in 1958 was that the field was cut in half after each round, giving the crowd fewer players to watch. And it was miserable for television when the biggest stars were eliminated.
That much hasn’t changed.
Tiger Woods left on Thursday for the second year in a row, and the only reason he lasted that long was because of a snowstorm on Wednesday. He lost in the first round, as did Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world. By the weekend, the highest seed remaining was Masters champion Bubba Watson.
But a closer look will show that this tournament is won by some of the best in match play.
Kuchar’s record improved to 15-3.
His last win came at the expense of Mahan, who had won 11 straight matches in this event — 12 overall dating to his singles win in the 2011 Presidents Cup — and had a staggering streak of 169 holes without trailing.
The previous four winners were Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Geoff Ogilvy and Woods, all of them considered the best in the head-to-head game that many believe to be the purest form of golf.
Donald has a 17-8 record in this tournament alone, which doesn’t speak to his prowess in the Ryder Cup. Poulter had a 19-3-2 record in match play worldwide the last three years, though he wound up losing twice in one day on Sunday — to Mahan in the semifinals, and to Jason Day in a consolation match.
Ogilvy was disheartened at failing to qualify this year, and it’s easy to see why. He has a 20-5 record at the Match Play, with two wins and three trips to the championship match. Ogilvy has never lost in singles in the Presidents Cup, with two of those wins over Steve Stricker.
Woods, of course, needs no introduction when it comes to Match Play. He won six straight USGA titles as an amateur, and even with a recent slump at Dove Mountain — he has failed to get out of the second round since he won in 2008 — his overall record in this format as a pro is 48-15-2.
Mahan had to take down Poulter in the semifinal, and it was no picnic. Mahan twice hit tough chips to within 6 feet to win a hole, and he chipped in from 70 feet behind the 12th green to grab a 3-up lead and coast in against the Englishman, who was off his game in that match. As tough as Poulter is in match play, Mahan knew that Kuchar would be just as difficult in his own way.
“It was definitely a different vibe, for sure,” Mahan said. “Kooch and I had more conversation on the first hole than I did with Poulter all day. But that’s the difference between the two guys. There’s nothing wrong with it either way. Poults is very steely out there. He motivates himself in a different way than Kooch does.”
Poulter and Mahan learned an old lesson the hard way. There is no good time in this tournament to have a bad day. Some players can get away with one in the early rounds, but not late in the bracket when those who are left got there for a reason.
When Mahan hit a weak pitch up the slope on No. 4 and made bogey, he paid for it more ways than one. It was the first time he trailed in any match since the sixth hole of the opening round last year. And he trailed Kuchar, who doesn’t make many mistakes.
Kuchar built a 4-up lead at the turn on the strength of two good birdies and two bad bogeys from Mahan, but the defending champion fought back. He won the next two holes, both into a fierce, cold wind, which the cut deficit in half and gave Mahan loads of momentum. And then he hit an 8-iron into 10 feet on the par-3 12th.
That’s where the match turned in Kuchar’s favor. He followed with an 8-iron to just inside 15 feet, still a difficult putt.
“The shot was certainly good, but the putt was really crucial, and when that went in, I felt like I was still in control of the match,” Kuchar said. “Had that putt not gone in, it would have been only a 1-up lead, and I think the match was in anybody’s hands at that point.”
Mahan kept fighting and trailed by one hole when they got to the 17th, and an exciting back nine ended with a thud. Both hit into the fairway bunker on 17, but Mahan’s ball was slightly sunk in the sand, and his approach never came close to reaching the green. Instead, it rolled through a patch of desert until it lodged in a bush. Mahan took four shots to reach the green and conceded the match.
Kuchar won for the fifth time in his career, pocketing just over $3.2 million for his last two titles — the WGC and The Players Championship. He moved to No. 8 in the world and is sure to be looked up on as a contender in the majors this year.
And now, no one will be deceived by Kuchar’s easy smile and happy-go-lucky nature when they return to Dove Mountain next year.
“He does it differently,” Mahan said. “He’s more like a fuzzier, Peter Jacobsen kind of guy who likes to talk. He’s super competitive, there’s no doubt about it. He plays golf to win, and he works hard at it.”