Hunter Mahan beat Rory McIlroy in the final round of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship
Six rounds of head to head match play led up to a great battle between the two but 62 others didn’t make it that far
There are upsets all across the bracket but I don’t think anybody was expecting this . . .
As we head closer to March college basketball fans are preparing for Madness to ensue. Golf fans were able to fill in their own brackets last week for the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship played at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus designed course at Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona. It is a 64 player bracket filled by the best golfers in the world, no matter if they play on the PGA, European or Japanese Tour. The players are seeded according to their World Golf ranking and are placed into one of four brackets, the Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gary Player or Sam Snead. The #1 seed would play a #16 seed in the opening round, 2 plays 15, 3 plays 14 and so on but the rankings aren’t nearly as important as during March Madness. The play is a single elimination match play event, where the two seeds go head to head against one another with the victor moving on to the next day.
This is one of the quirkiest golf tournaments of the year and many of the fans love to watch this one on one battle between the worlds’ greatest. In the field of 64 there were 22 players from the United States while the rest of the 42 were International players from 14 different countries. It is very rare that a #1 seed wins the entire tournament and the only player to ever win with that ranking is Tiger Woods in 2003. Similarly to college basketball the first games don’t make way for many huge upsets, although last year’s winner would oppose, usually the big upsets take place in the 2nd round. Since 1999 there have been 106 upsets in the 2nd round out of 208 matches. Match play is really up in the air and there has been success by multiple players deemed “low seeds” who have won this tournament including 52nd ranked Geoff Ogilvy in 2006, 55th ranked Steve Stricker in 2001 and 62nd ranked Kevin Sutherland in 2002.
Last year Luke Donald won the Championship quite easily, never trailing in a single match, but this year the overall #1 seed was taken out by the last man in the tournament. Ernie Els was selected as the final 16th seed making him the 64th man in a tournament with just 64 men. Els absolutely dominated Donald defeating him 5 and 4 (he was 5 holes up with 4 to play) and was just 1 of 13 matches where a lower seed prevailed in the opening 32 matches. As I stated earlier the upsets normally happen in the 2nd round where there has been no less than 6 upsets in the 16 matchups. That was at least until this year when there were just 3, all of which were in the Gary Player bracket. #13 Miguel Jimenez defeated last year’s PGA Tour rookie of the year and 5th seed Keegan Bradley, while #10 John Senden beat #2 Jason Day to face off against #11 Sang-Moon Bae who defeated last year’s Master’s Champion Charl Schwartzel.
The biggest defeat however came when Tiger Woods was unable to hit a putt inside of 6 feet to force Nick Watney into playing extra holes. It is the first time since 2002 that the 2nd round had no matches going into extra holes and there would be none in the following rounds either. There had been a few extra hole’s needed in the opening round, 5 to be exact, but one of those golfers who won in the playoffs would go on to win the tournament.
Hunter Mahan was ranked #6 in the Ben Hogan bracket and he needed an extra hole to beat out #11 Zach Johnson in the opening round but followed that up by beating #14 Y.E. Yang 5 and 3 and #2 Steve Stricker 4 and 3 and #4 Matt Kuchar 6 and 5. Coming into this year’s Match Play Championship Mahan was 4-4 with his biggest win was 4 and 3 against Richard Sterne in 2008 and Sean O’Hair last year. After defeating Kuchar (who beat #1 Martin Kaymer), Mahan had claimed a spot in the semifinals facing #10 Mark Wilson who beat #7 Bo Van Pelt, #15 Robert Rock, #3 Dustin Johnson and #9 Peter Hanson (who until their match hadn’t been behind all tournament).
With Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald out of the tournament there were just two #1 seeds left after the round of 16. With Donald’s early exit #1 seeds Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy had a chance to secure the #1 overall World Golf ranking if either player were to win the Championship. Both Westwood and McIlroy dominated in their first 4 matchups and the two friends would face each other in the semi-final round. Last year was the first time in this Championship’s history that the semi-final matchups weren’t played on Saturday. From 1999-2010 the players would play both the quarterfinal and semifinal matches on Saturday so that they were available to play the final round on Sunday, pretty standard, except before the Championship was decided over 36 holes, not 18 like it is now.
Since the format has changed the semifinal and Championship rounds are played on Sunday and it was going to be a big day for the #2 overall player, McIlroy, and the #3 overall player Westwood, who both had a chance to become golf’s best player. For those who have never watched this tournament players are allowed to concede putts and even entire holes if they are close enough to the pin or if they have no chance of winning. Many putts had been conceded up until this point but when the two #1 seeds faced off there were none, Westwood even made McIlroy finish out a putt of less than 2 feet to win the 5th. Usually players will strategically give their opponents short putts in hopes of having the favor returned later in the match, but Westwood set the tone that he and McIlroy were going to have to finish everything out.
That birdie putt on 5 cut Westwood’s early 3 hole lead, after the Englishman won 3 of the first 4 holes, but he knew who he was playing and was Rory was capable of. McIlroy had evened the match by the 8th hole, taken a lead by the 9th and at the 11th McIlroy hit a shot that showed you who had momentum. It was the par 5 11th hole and McIlroy blasted his tee shot 350 yards and Westwood followed with the longest drive of the tournament killing on 391 yards. McIlroy had a difficult second shot and it seemed that his ball was fading into the desert and out of bounds, but it took a lucky bounce off of the cart path and towards the green. The hole would eventually be halved but as Westwood said afterwards “That sort of thing can change a match.” McIlroy would defeat Westwood 3 and 1 and had earned his way towards playing for golf’s #1 overall ranking.
Hunter Mahan and Mark Wilson would battle each other for the final spot left in the match play Championship but the two didn’t get nearly as much attention as Westwood/McIlroy. Mahan would take a lead on the very first hole and was up 2 after playing the first two holes. Wilson would battle to cut Mahan’s lead to 1 multiple times and never allowed the American to go up more than 2 holes. Mahan was solid in his early match on Sunday having a few clutch chips, which is big as Mahan’s short game has left a lot to be desired. Mark Wilson didn’t have to concede many putts to Mahan because it seemed like Hunter was hitting putt after putt. Mahan would win the match 2 and 1 and had 5 birdies and 2 bogeys in the 17 holes that he played.
In 2009 Mahan and McIlroy faced off in this event and Rory took Hunter down on the final hole to win 1 up. On Sunday all of the focus was on Rory and his chance at becoming the #1 player in the world and Hunter should have just been happy to be there. McIlroy was shaky missing a 3 foot putt for par on the first hole and you wondered if the pressure was getting to him. The two were all square through the first 5 holes but Mahan would go on to win 3 of the last 4 holes on the front 9. Mahan took 10 and was 4 up with 8 left to play but McIlroy would win 13 and 14 to cut the lead to 2 with 4 holes left. Mahan would end up winning 2 and 1 while the 22 year old from Northern Ireland seemed to have been rattled by all the pressure. Meanwhile Hunter Mahan just kept playing his game the way he had all week long and it resulted in his first victory since 2010.
Mahan’s last win was at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and with his victory on Sunday he became just the 6th player to have won multiple WGC tournaments. Mahan’s previous best finish was a tie for 9th in 2011 but after winning this year he has improved his record to 10-4 at this tournament. Mahan is just 29, turning 30 in a few months, and his 4 career wins are the 2nd most by any player in their 20’s. Mahan’s win is the first for an American since Tiger Woods defeated Stewart Cink 8 and 7 (although that was when the Championship was 36 holes) and it also means that an American has won the first 8 tournaments of the PGA Tour, which hasn’t happened since 2001. Instead of pushing Rory McIlroy to the #1 overall ranking with Mahan’s win he has propelled himself from the mid-20’s to the 9th overall ranking and this isn’t the last we will hear from him.