Hunter Mahan was in the midst of a streak that was genuinely difficult to believe. In 11 matches at Dove Mountain Golf Course spanning two years, he'd played 169 holes without trailing once. He won the Accenture Match Play Championship 2012, and now, in the 2013 semifinals, he was two strokes up on Ian Poulter, the greatest match-play golfer of his generation and the 2010 tournament champion. Unlike Poulter's previous opponents, Mahan seemed at ease as he faced a pitch from 68 feet behind the green on no. 12. Poulter was on the putting surface, and this looked like the moment when Europe's Ryder Cup hero would make his move. Crosswinds in excess of 30 mph were whipping through the flags above the covered seating area, creating a sound like the roar of a gallery. But the spectators were silent as Mahan pitched, watching the ball catch the downslope and trickle toward the hole. A murmur started, not quite a match for the flags yet. It slowly gained steam as the possibility became real, and then erupted when the ball disappeared in the hole.
Poulter gave no hint of a reaction, but his putt was short, and now Mahan was 3-up. Twists like these, when a perceived disadvantage is reversed with a single great shot, had been dubbed "the wonder of match play" by Poulter himself after he sank a 40-foot putt against Steve Stricker on Saturday. He would use less poetic words to describe Mahan's pitch.
Two holes later, when Poulter missed a short attempt at 14 to lose the hole, I was just behind Mahan as he turned away from the green. His eyebrows rose and a surprised smile crept across his face. He tamed the pleasure in a millisecond; great match-play golfers don't believe they've won until it's good and over, and especially not against cutthroats like Poulter. But for a moment, he gave in to the triumph. At 4-up with four holes to play, he knew he'd just beaten the most intimidating man on the golf course.
Which is why, considering his incredible streak, many expected him to beat Matt Kuchar in the final Sunday afternoon.
So, of course, he did not — just as Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods didn't advance beyond the first round, and just as the other 1-seeds, Luke Donald and Louis Oosthuizen, were gone before the round of 16. In this event, where a field of the 64 best golfers face off in a single-elimination bracket, predictability is out the window. That's the wonder of match play.
On Thursday afternoon, when the Tucson snow had melted and the course in the middle of the desert was wet but playable, there were a few twilit moments that confirmed a notion I'd heard over and over: The opening round of the Match Play Championship is the most underrated day in sports. It culminated when Tiger and Rory fell to their unheralded opponents within minutes of each other, classic 1-vs.-16 upsets of the kind that have never happened in NCAA basketball. In the near darkness, it was hard not to get goose bumps watching a shocked Shane Lowry celebrate his win over McIlroy while fans chanted in Gaelic, or seeing Charles Howell III's still somewhat surprised face at his press conference.1
But then, when the night turns into day and the goose bumps fade, you're faced with a harsh reality: Woods and McIlroy are no longer in the tournament.
This was particularly difficult news to bear for NBC, whose weekend ratings can fluctuate wildly based on the matchups. It's not great for the spectators, either, many of whom aren't able to attend or watch the tournament on television on weekdays. That's why stroke-play tournaments make so much sense; the action picks up on Saturday, and the climax is always on a Sunday. The Ryder Cup, a match-play event, is also immune to this problem because the format ensures that all the key players face off in singles on Sunday. But if you're going to stage an individual match-play tournament, you take a big risk. You might get a Tiger Woods–Davis Love III final, as happened in 2004, but you might also get 2002's Kevin Sutherland vs. Scott McCarron dud.
The best description I heard came from a PGA employee who called it "the Benjamin Button of tournaments." Unlike every other event, the energy flows in reverse.
The Deal With Match Play
In the aftermath of a lost Ryder Cup, Tom Lehman said that if golfers played match play every week, they'd behave as badly as tennis players. And he's probably right — it's easy to imagine the politeness and the etiquette of the game falling by the wayside if things became more personal. But it also produces some compelling, intense golf. Match play introduces elements of conflict, luck, and gamesmanship, and it reveals a player's personality better than stroke play could ever hope. It's easy to let the imagination get carried away by Lehman's scenario Ian Poulter would be one of the greatest golfers in history, fights would break out on the course but I'll settle for the novelty and the Wednesday anticipation that something chaotic is going to happen.
So what makes a good match-play golfer? It's not outward intensity; Poulter has it, but Matt Kuchar does not, and he had a strong match-play career even before winning on Sunday. The truth is difficult to define. It's too simple to call it competitiveness, because every professional golfer is competitive. And playing well under pressure doesn't tell the whole story, either; there are many Phil Mickelson types who play well in stroke-play events, including the majors, but are out of their comfort zone in match play. There's a common, intrinsic toughness to strong match-play golfers, but it's something even the most eloquent players have trouble explaining. What makes match play different is that every hole is counted in real time, and since a match lasts 18 holes rather than 72, the instant feedback ups the pressure. Then there's the idea of having a tangible human opponent rather than the more nebulous concept of "the field." The personal nature suits some golfers — maybe because they enjoy actually beating another person — but causes other to retreat.
I found the actual course to be nothing extraordinary, beyond the extreme slope of certain greens. But the scenery
This was my first visit to Sonoran Desert country, and walking among the saguaro cacti and jumping cholla,2 imagining rattlesnakes under every rock, I felt like I was wandering through a tall tale. The backdrop is stark and gorgeous, with stony foothills leading to the Tortolita Mountains, dotted with cacti that looked like graveside crosses. I've always liked the way the course looked on TV, but for some reason it never occurred to me that a place like this could be real.
Get to Arizona, is my point.
The Final Four
After the top seeds fell, the bracket played out about as well as anyone could hope, and the semifinals gave us a satisfying assortment of personalities (with no majors between them).
Before his quarterfinal match against Day, a reporter asked Graeme McDowell about his opponent's "quirks" — namely, Day's stated preference to walk ahead of his opponents, showing them only his back, and his insistence that opponents putt even the shortest gimmes.3
"That's good to know, thanks," McDowell told the reporter in response.
Day is a 25-year-old Australian, known for back-to-back second-place finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open in 2011, and if he fits the description of a match-play pest, he's at least a friendly one. He stands at 6 feet, and the impish smirk you see in this photo is typical. There's an open, approachable quality about him, as when he speaks about how he was sidetracked in 2012 by having his first child, or how watching McIlroy become the great young hope was difficult when Day himself had occupied that role a year earlier. He can also be funny. He spoke about how his friends and advisers had to stage an intervention to get him to work harder after a rough 2012. And after he beat McDowell 1-up, a small group of reporters asked him about making players hit the gimmes.
"From zero to 3 feet, if you're 100 percent in your entire life," he said, "then I will give you putts." He admitted that he does it to make his opponent concentrate on an extra shot rather than relaxing, and that if it makes him angry, that's a bonus. "But you have to watch who you piss off," he warned. He made Russell Henley putt the short ones on 16 and 17 in the second round, and could tell it made him angry. Henley made a birdie on 18 to force an extra hole, and his fist pump when the putt went down was one of the most emphatic gestures of the week. "You've got to be careful," he repeated, shaking his head.
And then the conversation took a turn for the bizarre. The reporters asked him how he accounted for his quick improvement at the start of 2013. Here's what he said:
Well like I said, I started working with these guys from Focus Band. Um, what it is, is actually measuring brain waves. Uh, it teaches, you know, how to get, I'm in the zone, I was just in the zone, and I don't know how I got there. It teaches you how to get there, so, actually, there's two little, um, little buttons or something that sit under your hat, with a bit of a machine at the back. It's not under my hat now. And you have a computer there and it teaches you if you're using your right brain or if you're using your left brain. If you're using your right brain, it means you're in focus. And, it's kinda, like if you see me walking around with something on the back of my head, with something clipped to my ear, then that's what it was. I use it on the range, I use it around the chipping green, the putting green, and all that this is actually measuring — you can actually see if you're using your left brain, which is not as good as your right brain I use it every night, I use it every morning. Just so that I can, it's easier to get back into, well, they call it "Mushin," which is Japanese for focus. So, try to get back into focus It makes noises, so if you, uh, if you're in focus, it makes this certain noise I mean, I don't know all the ins and outs of it.
He's had a successful start to 2013, with top-10 finishes at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach. But he was also exhausted, having faced two stressful matches in two days ("my head's in a well"), and it was no surprise when Kuchar beat him easily in Sunday morning's semifinals, 4&3.
There is nobody more fascinating to me than Poulter. In golf circles, he's beloved in his native England and despised in America. Part of the hatred stems from his success in the Ryder Cup, but that's not a satisfying explanation. There are a lot of Europeans with Ryder Cup success, but McIlroy and Lee Westwood don't get heckled mercilessly on American courses. With Poulter, the reasons seem to be a combination of behavior and, yes, appearance. He's tall and thin, and he dresses in bright colors — often garish plaids. Add to that his visor, wraparound sunglasses, and the blonde faux-hawk sculpted with copious amounts of gel — and the result is an image that seems designed to irk. His behavior on the course verges on rude, especially during match play, and he's not much inclined toward idle conversation or signing autographs or even acknowledging polite comments. As Hunter Mahan put it before their match, "He gets his head up and his shoulders back and starts motoring down the fairway "
And he's a demon in match play. He played Steve Stricker in the quarterfinals on Saturday, and the contrast in styles was so marked that it would have felt contrived in a film. While Stricker threw balls to little kids, fist-bumped the marshals, and introduced himself to the scorekeepers with his down-home Midwestern accent, Poulter was all business, marching on through the course as if no one else existed. It was Stricker's birthday and, naturally, the gallery sang to him. Pure Hollywood. Except in Hollywood, Stricker would never have suffered the thrashing he received from Poulter.
Like Day, Poulter makes a point to walk well ahead of his opponent, and though he hasn't admitted it, the ploy feels psychological. He rarely engages in the normal niceties, and by avoiding them he can seem abrasive. The best example against Stricker came on the third hole, when Poulter sank a twisting 40-foot putt. Any make from that length involves at least a little luck, and Stricker turned to give Poulter a friendly "You ol' son of a gun!" smile. But Poulter stared right through him behind his sunglasses, refusing to even acknowledge the gesture. It had to be a little humiliating for Stricker. He still had a 6-foot birdie putt to halve the hole, but he missed, and it was impossible not to feel he'd been psyched out. From there, the match quickly got out of hand.
And Poulter was heckled the entire way. From chants of "U-S-A!" to fans openly shouting for his ball to land in a sand trap ("Classy, guys, classy," Poulter responded) to one fan following him around and insisting that he would choke (Poulter to his caddie: "Did you hear that prick?"), it was incessant. On the last hole, a spectator even yelled "Pick it up!" to Stricker, who thought he'd heard Poulter and picked up his ball, causing a minor stir. None of it was quite as bad as the Ryder Cup, but it was still beyond what you'd expect at a golf tournament.
The worse it got, the better Poulter played. When you make Ian Poulter the bad guy — when things get personal — he thrives. Maybe that explains why he has such success in match play, while he can't seem to put it together through four days at a normal event. In either case, the precision was remarkable; on one hole, his caddy told him that the distance with an iron was 195, but that "it's playing 200." He then handed him a club and said, "this club gives you 205, 206, so take some off." Asking a player to take five yards off a 205-yard shot is essentially telling him to swing at 97.6 percent capacity, which is silly. But Poulter did it. The ball went right, but it was exactly even with the flag. "Had the number," he said.
Poulter was also responsible for my favorite quote of the tournament. After he lost to Mahan, reporters asked him about the consolation match. His response seemed like internal monologue.
"You know, third and fourth, yeah. I'm going to go out there and try and win, is what I'm going to try and do. But I'm a little bit deflated at the minute. Third or fourth, does it really matter? Yes, it matters, so I guess I'm playing for a little bit of change, and more importantly some World Ranking points."
He didn't win the consolation match, either.
Davis Love III had four captain's picks for last year's Ryder Cup, and he used two of them on Steve Stricker, who went 0-4, and Jim Furyk, arguably the worst Ryder Cupper in American history, who went 1-2. His most egregious omission? Hunter Mahan, who was so devastated by the snub that he couldn't bring himself to watch the event on TV.
Mahan is a 30-year-old California native with an easy demeanor and a hidden competitive streak. One of the revelations of a tournament like this is that despite the unpredictability of how the best players will fare, you'll eventually get an accurate picture of which players excel at this format. Mahan's lifetime record in Tucson is now 15-5, and he's beaten some of the biggest names; he took down McIlroy for the title in 2012, and even Poulter couldn't shake him. If there's an equivalent to the tennis phenomenon of clay-court specialists in golf, it's the match-play specialist.
Coming into his match with Poulter, Mahan was 52-for-52 on putts inside 10 feet for the week. Like his 169-hole leading streak, that statistic is difficult to digest. And while Poulter struggled with the wind, Mahan was on target, increasing the pressure and extending the lead. When he hit the long pitch at no. 12, I heard the same thing from two different writers: "Poulter just got Poultered."
On 15, needing just one more split hole to win the match, Mahan ripped his drive to within a few feet of the reachable par-4. The aggressive shot effectively finished the match, and as the fans chanted "U-S-A!" while they approached the green — directed, of course, more at Poulter than at Mahan — the pleasure on his face was distant and had little to do with the surrounding noise. He was on the verge of becoming a match-play titan, and the path had taken him past one of the greats.
One of the hazards of covering the Match Play Championship live is that you have to take some chances on whom to follow. I didn't think Kuchar would be a threat to win, and so, before the final match, I hadn't seen him play once. That now seems like an oversight; he won the '97 U.S. Amateur, a high-profile match-play event, and he reached the semis of this tournament in 2011 and the quarterfinals last year. At 9-3 in Tucson, he came in with a history of success, albeit a short one, and after smashing through the bracket without ever having to play the 18th green,4 he can now be considered one of America's best match-play competitors.
Kuchar, 34, has had an up-and-down career that included a stint on the Nationwide Tour after he lost his PGA card in 2005. The adversity has made him a better, more resilient golfer. It can be tough to identify, though, because he comes off as laid-back, his face marked by a constant blush and a sheepish grin. He's not outwardly fierce like Poulter, and the championship match with Mahan started with conversation; Mahan said they spoke more on the first hole than he and Poulter had the entire match.
But for the first time all week, Mahan was off his game, and by the ninth hole, he was 4-down. He finally got it going on the back nine, and reduced the deficit to two holes by no. 12. But Kuchar hit a big birdie putt when Mahan had a close chance, and then won no. 13 to extend the lead again. Mahan climbed back with one last surge, but it was too late, and Kuchar finished the match on 17.
Like the others, he has trouble verbalizing why he's so good at match play. "I can't tell you any secrets," he said. "I don't really adjust strategy unless something out of the ordinary has happened."
I believe that he doesn't know the secrets, but I believe they do exist.