Backspin: Mahan one of the best at match play

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Hunter Mahan had his streak of 169 holes without trailing end in the championship match with Matt Kuchar on Sunday.
February 25, 2013
Brian Wacker,

Wind at Kapalua, fog at Torrey Pines and snow at Dove Mountain. Thankfully there aren't any volcanoes in South Florida.

Perhaps the latest bout of weather was befitting what was a wild World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, where Matt Kuchar improved on an already very good record in the event that now includes a win, and where Hunter Mahan proved that he’s no slouch in that format, either.

Remember, it was only three years ago that the weight of the Ryder Cup was heaped on Mahan's shoulders after a flubbed chip in the final match against Graeme McDowell. Certainly the U.S. loss wasn't his fault, but Mahan was the last man standing left to feel the heat.

Mahan has grown a lot as a player and person since then. Last week in Arizona was just another example of that. A year after beating the soon-to-be No. 1 player in the world to win his second WGC title, Mahan was in the final again.

"Without a doubt (I'm a better player than last year)," Mahan said after a fierce rally came up short against Kuchar. "I have more control, more understanding of my game than I did back then. I have a better understanding of who I am and what I need to do to continue this type of play."

And that will certainly benefit the U.S. later this year at The Presidents Cup and in future Ryder Cups. A year after being left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team, I don't see Mahan getting passed over this time (though he’ll likely qualify on his own anyway).

I don't know that he'll become the U.S. version of Ian Poulter when it comes to annual match play competitions, but Mahan also beat Poulter along the way last week.

Mahan's short game is also a lot tighter than it used to be, and his mentality is well-suited for match play.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"It was definitely probably a different vibe for sure. Kuch and I had more conversation on the first hole than I did with Poulter all day." -- Hunter Mahan on the difference between his semifinal match and the championship match. That, and a few birdies.

"I think that's probably one of the good things about my golfing makeup is my memory is not great. I know most people tend to remember the bad more than they remember the good.  My mental makeup, I pretty much leave the bad in the past pretty easily." -- Kuchar, talking about the struggles early in his career to where he is now. That mentality also works well in match play.

"Essentially where the PGA TOUR came down was that they did not think that banning anchoring was in the best interest of golf or the PGA TOUR. … The essential thread that went through the thinking of the players and our board of directors and others that looked at this was that in the absence of data or any basis to conclude that there is a competitive advantage to be gained by using anchoring, and given the amount of time that anchoring has been in the game, that there was no overriding reason to go down that road."  -- PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem announcing that the TOUR opposes the anchoring ban put forth by the USGA.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@LukeDonald: It's officially snowing, Carl Pettersson with the quote of the day so far "This is only one of few times it's an advantage to be fat" #cold -- Donald relaying the comments of the Swede after the first day at the WGC-Accenture Match Play was wiped out by a snowstorm.

@shanelowrygolf: Times like this I could do with my @SrionGolf zstar yellow ball. #snow -- Apparently it didn't matter what color ball Lowry played in the snow-delayed first round, eventually upsetting top-seeded Rory McIlroy.

"It's somewhat refreshing a little bit to play in match play because you can kind of just lay it all out there every single match," Mahan said. "It's not like another tournament where it's one day after the next.  You're just kind of in the moment so much."

I have a feeling there will be a lot of big moments for Mahan going forward.

THE FRONT NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Some players might change their strategy or focus when it comes to match play. Not Matt Kuchar. "My game plan is to start off as much like stroke play as I can," he said. "Play the golf course and forget about what the opponent is doing unless the opponent does something. I may change strategy a little bit, but for the most part I am playing the same so I feel pretty comfortable in just trying to play the golf course." It’s certainly worked well -- in the last three years Kuchar has finished third, reached the quarterfinals and won at Dove Mountain.

2. To that point, every year since 2006 Matt Kuchar's scoring average has gone down. Some years it has been bigger than others, but every season he's gotten at least a little bit better. In 2006, he ranked 187th with a 72.39 scoring average. This year, he's 10th with a 69.47 average. He's also run his record to 15-3 in this event, which is the highest winning percentage of any player to have played at least 10 matches. It's all a testament to the work he's put in under coach Chris O’Connell. "I was good in my younger days but streaky. I could be really good for a while and then struggle," Kuchar said. "Now I feel like I'm a golfer that can hit quality shots week in and week out, day in and day out."

3. Maybe it's just me, but did anyone else think Hunter Mahan came out flat against Kuchar after beating match play king Ian Poulter in the semifinals earlier in the day? It reminded me a little of last year when Rory McIlroy had an emotional win over Lee Westwood before losing to Mahan in the final, when McIlroy also started slow. Mahan, however, insisted he was sharp, at least mentally. "Mind was great," he said. "I just wasn't executing my shots very well."

4. One major factor in the first-round upsets of McIlroy and Tiger Woods by Shane Lowry and Charles Howell III, respectively, was familiarity. Lowry is good friends with McIlroy and likewise Howell with Woods. Good golf is a lot easier among friends and neither Lowry nor Howell was overwhelmed by the spotlight they were in. (I always think back to Phil Mickelson being paired with Fred Couples en route to winning the 2006 Masters as Exhibit A.) "It was much easier for me to play against Rory than it would have been playing against Tiger, purely because I just know Rory so well," said Lowry, who had dinner with McIlroy earlier in the week, after his 1-up victory. Said Howell, who had never beaten Woods in all their head-to-head matches at Isleworth: "I still kept waiting for that Tiger moment." Only this time it never came.

5. Stat of the Week I: Mahan and Kuchar reaching Sunday's final marked the seventh time in the 15-year history of the Accenture Match Play Championship that two Americans played in the championship match. Kuchar's victory also continued a streak of Americans winning each of the first eight events this season. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon, though. Last year, Americans won the first nine events of the year.

6. Stat of the Week II: Kuchar did not play the 18th hole this week. Well, except for in a practice round. Not that he needed it. Only Luke Donald in 2011 has won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship without playing the final hole in any of his six matches.

7. Stat of the Week III: Before Kuchar finally took the lead (for good as it turned out) with a par on the fourth hole of the championship match, Mahan hadn't trailed in a match in this event since the opening round of the 2012 tournament, or a span of 169 holes. Part of that is Mahan's comfort level with the course, part of it his overall improvement I mentioned earlier. "I've always gotten off to good starts and got some leads," he said. "If you hit fairways and greens, you know you're going to put pressure on your guy."

8. Oddity of the week: The last two years, Kuchar was knocked out of the WGC-Accenture Match Play by the eventual champion -- Luke Donald in the 2011 semifinals and Mahan in the quarterfinals last year.

9. The forecast for this week's Honda Classic: Temperatures in the 60s and 70s with only some scattered rain. Now that sounds a little more like it.

MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
 

I thought Tiger was "back?" When is the media going to realize the consistent Tiger is gone? -- Doug Lowry

You're right, Doug. Tiger is no longer the consistently dominant player he once was. That doesn't mean he can't put together stretches of good golf, however. Remember, he still won three times last year and once this year. Only Rory McIlroy boasts a better record over that time. The bottom line is Woods spoiled us for more than a decade and warped our perspective in the process. But he'll win again, just not as often.

Who are your top 3 up-and-comers to keep an eye out for this year? -- Brian Lalley

Russell Henley has already turned some heads this year, not only for his win earlier this season in Hawaii but his upset win over Charl Schwartzel in the opening round last week. As well as Henley rolls it, I wouldn't be surprised if he won again this year. Two others I like: James Hahn and Luke List.

Have a question for the mailbag? Email your question to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN
 
A year ago, The Honda Classic marked the ascension of Rory McIlroy to No. 1 in the world in what was the most torrid stretch of golf this side of the Tiger Woods years. Now? McIlroy comes in with just three rounds under his belt off a missed a cut in Abu Dhabi and a first-round exit in the Accenture Match Play Championship -- a tournament he reached the final of in 2012. McIlroy's early-season woes are more swing than equipment-related, and he'll work them out -- just not this week. Instead, keep an eye on Lee Westwood. Somehow, Westwood has just two wins on TOUR compared to 22 on the European Tour. But he's also played well at PGA National with a tie for ninth in 2010 and a fourth last year that included a final-round 63. After moving to the area in the offseason to focus on the PGA TOUR, I think he continues that trend this week.
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