Ian Poulter: The one player who might truly deserve the label of “match play specialist”. Two of his last four worldwide wins have come in match play formats; the 2010 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the 2011 Volvo World Match Play Championship on the European Tour. Not to mention the incredible Ryder Cup performance Poulter put on last September at Medinah. To reach the semifinals Poulter ousted Stephen Gallacher, Bo Van Pelt, Tim Clark and Steve Stricker, never trailing in any of his matches. Poulter’s typical match-play putting wizardry was in full effect in the first four rounds, but ultimately went cold with the weather on the final day. His semifinal opponent, Hunter Mahan chipped away (literally) at Poulter. The consolation match with Australian Jason Day was, well, a consolation match for about $115,000 and a few more world ranking points.
Jason Day: It was great to see the young Australian (only 25 years old) back in the form he showed in 2011 when he rose to seventh in the world and finished runner-up at both The Masters and the U.S. Open. After dispatching of three major champions, Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson and Graeme McDowell, and the front-runner for rookie of the year, Russell Henley, Day was boat raced by Matt Kuchar in the semis. Day lost 4&3 but the match never felt that close as Day struggled to find consistency in the cold wind. How difficult were the conditions? Day played driver off the tee on the par 5 8th hole then had to lay up with a driver off the deck! Day did walk away with a win over Ian Poulter in the consolation match, 1up. Expect to see Jason Day emerge as the leading Australian again this year and add to his victory at the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Classic Championship.
Hunter Mahan: The first defending champion to reach the semifinals the next year since Henrik Stenson in 2008, Mahan looked like he had not skipped a beat in the 12 months since his win at Dove Mountain. He never trailed in a match until the final against Matt Kuchar. Mahan did not have a match go to the last hole all week. His ball striking was, as usual, impeccable, finding fairways with bombed drives and hitting greens with regularity as he knocked out Matteo Manassero, Richard Sterne, Martin Kaymer and Webb Simpson on his way to the final four. The biggest knock on Mahan has been his short game, especially since the infamous chunked chip in the decisive match of the 2010 Ryder Cup against Graeme McDowell. Mahan has been working on his short game with swing coach Sean Foley recently and put a short game clinic on in his win over Poulter, 4&3. An incredible bunker shot on the par 5 second set up a birdie to take the lead. A deft high pitch from well below the green to inches set up another birdie on the par 5 8th. The match seemed to settle in Mahan’s favor for good after he chipped in from 70 feet after blowing his tee shot over the green on the par 3 12th. Hunter Mahan made the statement that he will not be left off of any future Ryder Cup teams after his back-to-back finals appearances.
Matt Kuchar: The defending Players Champion added a World Golf Championship to his résumé with a 2&1 victory over defending champion Hunter Mahan at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Much like a stroke play tournament, the best player made himself clearer and clearer as the week progressed. Starting with a win over Japan’s Hiroyuki Fujita in round one and continuing with wins over Sergio Garcia, Nicolas Colsaerts and Robert Garrigus, Kuchar was primed to assert himself again as one of the top American players. The brutally cold conditions of Sunday did not seem to faze Kuchar as he sported a ski cap, red wind-burned face, and large mittens to warm his hands between shots. His trademark consistency and scrambling carried him past Jason Day 4&3 in the semis and 2&1 over Hunter Mahan in the championship match. After nine holes in the championship match, Kuchar was 4 up on Mahan. He promptly drove it in the desert on 10 and opened the door for Mahan to dwindle the lead to 1 up after 15. Kuchar would prevail after pars on the 16th and 17th. He will jump to 8th in the OWGR and second in the early season FedEx Cup standings. Kuchar also joins Tiger Woods as the only players to win both the U.S. Amateur and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
In all, this turned out to be a pretty interesting tournament. Of course, would we all have liked to see Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods go to extra holes in the Championship match? Of course, who wouldn’t want to see a duel between the two best players in the world? Considering what the tournament gave us, we should all be pleased. After waffling back and forth on the idea of wanting more or less match play all week I’ve realized some things:
a) Match Play is exciting. The pressure and more aggressive play is fun to see.
b) It is possible for bigger name players to be eliminated early. But that can happen in stroke play too. While there are more rounds to make the cut and get in contention in stroke play, it is not uncommon to see a marquee name finish T53 and never in the tournament.
c) I’d like to see more match play. I think one more singles match play event (perhaps the TOUR Championship for $10 million) with 36 hole matches to insure the better player (not higher seed, but better player) moves on. I’d also like to see a team match play event that is official. Similar to the old Miami Four-Ball tournament from the 40s and 50s, not like the Shark Shootout in December. It would be fun to see players teamed up, not necessarily with countrymen like in Ryder and Presidents Cups.
d) Just because the biggest names are not around doesn’t mean the tournament won’t produce a good contending group.
Same question as before: if we saw Jason Day, Ian Poulter, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar in the final group at Augusta in a few weeks would anyone be disappointed that the names are not big enough? No? Me neither.