Five things you need to remember from the WGC-Match Play Championship:
1. NOT SO FAST: Sunday afternoon’s final match between Hunter Mahan and Rory McIlroy was billed as a coronation. Turns out that was partly true, though not for the player we expected.
Mahan built as much as a 4-up lead and held off McIlroy down the stretch to win at Dove Mountain, becoming the only American twentysomething to boast two World Golf Championships on his resume. It was his fourth PGA Tour victory overall.
“Deep down,” Mahan said, “you wanted to postpone that crowning of the No. 1 player in the world for Rory.”
In the past five days, Mahan defeated some of the biggest names in golf, perennial Ryder Cup players, major champions: McIlroy, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson, Y.E. Yang. Wielding a new Ping putter, he carded 35 birdies in 96 holes (six matches). He will move to a career-best ninth in the Official World Golf Ranking.
It was Mahan’s first Tour victory since the Bridgestone Invitational, a WGC event, in August 2010.
“I feel like I’m doing the right steps to become a more consistent player and hopefully win more,” Mahan said.
2. COMING SOON . . . : McIlroy’s seemingly inevitable march to World No. 1 will have to wait another week.
After an electric semifinal victory against Lee Westwood on Sunday morning, McIlroy made a few uncharacteristic mistakes to fall behind early against Mahan and, despite a few brilliant moments on the back nine, could not recover. A win would have vaulted the 22-year-old to the top spot in the world ranking.
“That was the one I wanted all week and I got, and that’s what I got myself up for,” McIlroy said of his highly anticipated tilt with Westwood, a former ISM stablemate. “Yeah, maybe mentally and emotionally it did take a little bit out of me. But it still doesn’t take away from the fact that Hunter played very, very solid golf.”
McIlroy is teeing it up next week at PGA National.
3. SHORT AND SWEET: He’s not a long hitter. He’s certainly not the most feared competitor. But Mark Wilson still managed to take third place at the WGC-Match Play, defeating such bona fide stars as Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson (for the second time in this event) along the way.
That Wilson fared well this week shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, we’re still in the first two months of the season, and all five of his Tour victories have come before mid-March. And even though the result wasn’t what Wilson wanted — losing to eventual champion Mahan, 2 and 1, in the semis — he still earned valuable world ranking and Ryder Cup points. He topped Westwood, 1 up, in the consolation match.
“I feel like I won four tournaments this week,” he said, “and I can take that the rest of the year.”
4. TIGER TALES: That Tiger Woods lost to Nick Watney in the Round of 32 wasn’t all that startling. Watney, after all, is ranked 15th in the world. Tiger’s still in the midst of his “process.” His match-play record, at least in this event, has been trending downward.
No, the most startling thing about Tiger’s second-round loss was the manner in which he lost — missing three putts inside 10 over the last six holes, including a 6-footer on 18 that didn’t even hit the hole. It was the third consecutive year in which Woods failed to advance to the third round.
“I didn’t miss a single shot coming in, which is good. And that was fun, to hit the ball that well,” said Woods, a three-time winner at the Match Play. “Unfortunately, I just didn’t make a putt when I needed it.”
That, unfortunately, has become a troubling trend for Woods. He couldn’t buy a putt in Abu Dhabi and tied for third. And he couldn’t do much of anything during a frustrating final round at Pebble, where he tied for 15th and was lapped by his archrival, Phil Mickelson. Indeed, it’ll be an interesting few days in South Florida, where Woods is playing this week’s Honda Classic for the first time.
5. POINT OF CONCERN?: Last year, it seemed like an aberration when Luke Donald finished outside the top 10 in an event. So, safe to say, it’s been a less-than-ideal start to 2012 for the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year.
The World No. 1’s first-round exit at the Match Play — the defending champion lost, 5 and 4, to No. 64 seed Ernie Els — only highlighted his sluggish start, after he tied for 48th in Abu Dhabi and was T-56 at Riviera.
“I think golf is like that sometimes,” Donald said. “It’s a fickle game and sometimes it bites you. I’ve not got off to the quickest start this year. I’m certainly working hard and hopefully that will turn around.”
Yet Donald was far from the only past champion to struggle this week in the Arizona desert. Ian Poulter, the 2010 champion, was knocked out in Round 1 by Sang-moon Bae, and Geoff Ogilvy (2009 winner) lost his opening-round match against Keegan Bradley.