Semifinal preview: Hunter Mahan vs. Ian Poulter

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Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan will tee it up Sunday in a battle of past champions.
February 23, 2013
Helen Ross,

MARANA, Ariz. -- Two of the most successful players in the history of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship find themselves on a collision course in Sunday morning's semifinals.

Hunter Mahan is looking to get a step closer to successfully defending his title while Ian Poulter is keen to win the tournament for the second time in the last four years. Mahan is the fourth defending champion to reach the semifinals while the Brit, who has a 22-9 record overall, finds himself one win away from the title tilt for the third time in his career.

The two have never played each other in match play but both have a similarly focused approach. Poulter may be the more demonstrative of the two, but make no mistake, the fire burns in Mahan as well.

Mahan, in fact, has not trailed in a match since the sixth hole of his opener -- last year -- with Zach Johnson, a phenomenal stretch of 151 holes. Not to mention, that victory in 19 holes was also the last time Mahan visited No. 18 until he dispatched reigning U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson 1 up on Saturday afternoon.

"Webb had the honors today, and I realized how much I didn't like him hitting first just off the tee box," Mahan said. "I just didn't like it. I liked going first and hitting it and then walking. I felt like I had a rhythm there.

"It's different, but at the end of the day, it's just about executing. Whether you're first off or leading or whatever, still got to execute your shots. But I don't know, I like getting to 1 up or 2 up early and I feel like I can just kind of put the pedal on the gas and just go with it."

At the same time, Poulter has played 65 holes this week and only trailed in three. He beat Steve Stricker Saturday afternoon, making six of his 18 birdies for the week, as well as his only eagle, in taking down the 2001 winner.

Poulter hasn't hit the most fairways this week -- 57 percent to 75 percent for Mahan. Ditto for greens in regulation, where Mahan holds the edge at 71 percent to 65. But the colorful Brit ranks first among the remaining four players in scrambling, saving par 83 percent of the time to Mahan's 67 which will certainly serve him well on Sunday.

"He has a great short game, he's a great putter, but to me his determination and his will is his greatest strength," Mahan said. "You're going to see, he's never going to think he's out of a hole. I can never think that he's out of a hole because I know he can chip in or make a putt from anywhere. 

"I think the greatest challenge with him is just staying in my own game and just playing, not getting to kind of playing at his speed or anything because if he starts playing well he's going to play fast and gets his head up, and his shoulders back and starts motoring down the fairway. I just need to hit quality shots and put pressure on him that way."

Mahan was battle-tested when he arrived in the Sonoran desert for his title defense. He's coming off his best finish in four straight tournaments, a tie for eighth at Riviera, and the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain certainly brings back positive memories.

"I feel like I've gotten better kind of every single week," Mahan said. "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. It's not like another tournament where it's one day after the next. You're just kind of in the moment so much here that it's just kind of easy to play even when you're a little bit tired.

"... I feel like I have a good sense of this golf course. When I read putts, I'm so confident in my read that I'm stroking it freely, and I think that's been a big key this week."

Poulter, on the other hand, came to Dove Mountain on the heels of a six-week break during which time he put a new driver and irons into his bag, then hit the practice tee like he used to as a club pro before he hit it big on the world stage.

"And it's transferred from the range to the golf course this week," Poulter said. "I wasn't really afriad of hitting shots on the golf course, it was sa case of, yes, I have had six weeks off and I just need to get that buzz going."

Consider it done.

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