MARANA, Ariz. – Even in the most stressful form of golf, Matt Kuchar and his easy smile made the Match Play Championship look like a weekend game with his buddies.
It was fun when he built a 4-up lead at the turn. And when Hunter Mahan threw his best golf at him during a wild back nine Sunday at Dove Mountain, Kuchar never looked rattled, never felt as if the match belonged to anyone but him, and never lost the lead.
Kuchar kept momentum on his side with four birdies on the back nine, the last conceded on the 17th hole for a 2-and-1 victory. He captured his first World Golf Championship and put his name in the conversation as among the most lethal players in match play.
In his case, looks are deceiving.
“Match play I find to be such an amazing, unique format, so much fun to play and so much pressure,” Kuchar said. “It seems like each hole there’s so much momentum riding and so much pressure on every hole. To come out on top after six matches of playing the top 64 guys in the world, it’s an incredible feeling.”
Mahan, trying to join Tiger Woods as the only back-to-back winners of the Match Play Championship, had gone 169 holes without trailing dating to the opening round last year until Kuchar won the fourth hole of the championship with a par.
Mahan never caught up, though it wasn’t from a lack of effort. Every time he cut into the deficit, Kuchar answered the challenge — a 15-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole with Mahan in tight, and a 10-foot birdie putt on the 15th with Mahan poised to cut the lead to one hole.
And he did it all with that warm smile on a day so frigid they traded golf hats for ski caps.
“He does it differently,” said Mahan, who had to get past the ultra-intense Ian Poulter in the semifinals earlier Sunday. “He’s more like a fuzzier, Peter Jacobsen kind of guy who likes to talk. He’s super competitive, there’s no doubt about it. He plays golf to win, and he works hard at it. I think he really enjoys playing. When you play against him, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a competitive guy who’s probably not going to make mistakes.”
This time, it was Mahan who made the mistakes. He allowed Kuchar to win consecutive holes with pars, and Mahan fell further behind when Kuchar hit pitching wedge to 3 feet for birdie on the par-3 sixth and Mahan hit a poor second shot that kept him from matching birdies with Kuchar on the par-5 eighth.
But even 4 down at the turn, there was never a dull moment on the back nine.
For all the great shots in a 25 mph wind that felt harsh with the cool, desert air, the match ended with a thud.
Kuchar was 1 up on the 17th hole when both drove into the bunker. Their golf balls were only a few feet apart, but Mahan’s had sunk slightly in the sand, making it difficult for him to get a clean hit. He came up woefully short, the ball rambling through the desert until it landed in a bush. It took him four shots to reach the green, and with Kuchar only about 4 feet away, Mahan conceded the birdie and the match.
“Just had a bad stretch against Matt on the front nine there that put me just a little bit too far behind,” Mahan said.
Kuchar became the second player in the last three years to win the Match Play Championship without ever playing the 18th hole.
Mahan nearly forced him to the final tee.
He made a long two-putt par to win the 10th, and played a tough chip from the mound of a bunker to about 6 feet for a birdie on the next hole, cutting the lead in half. Mahan followed with a tee shot into about 10 feet on the par-3 12th, the momentum squarely on his side. Kuchar, however, followed with an 8-iron to just inside 15 feet and made the birdie putt.
“The shot was certainly good, but the putt was really crucial, and when that went in, I felt like I was still in control of the match,” Kuchar said. “Had that putt not gone in, it would have been only a 1-up lead, and I think the match was in anybody’s hands at that point.”
On the par-5 13th, Mahan hit a poor approach from the fairway and Kuchar got up-and-down to restore his lead to 3 up.
Kuchar came up with one more clutch shot. With a 2-up lead on the 304-yard 15th hole, the breeze at his back, Kuchar chipped about 10 feet past the hole with Mahan only 6 feet away for birdie. Kuchar holed the putt and escaped with a halve.
Mahan won the 16th with a two-putt par when Kuchar’s tee shot bounced off the corporate tents behind the green, and it looked as though the match would go down the 18th for the first time in nine matches for Kuchar. Both hit into the fairway bunker on 17, but Mahan’s ball was slightly sunk in the sand, and his approach never came close to reaching the green. Instead, it rolled through a patch of desert until it lodged in a bush.
Kuchar’s record in this event improved to 15-3, the highest winning percentage of anyone who has played at least 10 matches. He has reached the quarterfinals each of the last three years, and this time went all the way.
In the semifinals Sunday morning, when the wind chill hit a low of 37 degrees with the wind, Kuchar had no trouble against Jason Day in a 4-and-3 win.
Mahan hit a series of remarkable wedge shots in beating Poulter, 4 and 3, in his semifinal. He twice hit difficult chips inside 5 feet to win holes, and then seized control with a chip-in from about 70 feet on the 12th hole to take command.
Day defeated Poulter in the consolation match, 1 up.
It was the first all-American final in five years at the Match Play Championship, and Kuchar’s win gave the Americans a clean sweep of the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing for the second straight year.
He moves to No. 8 in the world and picked up $1.5 million, and now has earned just over $3.2 million from his last two wins.
Kuchar and Woods are the only former U.S. Amateur champions to win the Match Play Championship. Kuchar won the Amateur in 1997, the year after Woods turned pro. He recalls being in the semifinals with three Walker Cup players and feeling out of his league.
That wasn’t the case this year, even against Mahan. Collectively, they have a 27-4 record at this event the last three years.
“The difference today I think is just all that experience now,” Kuchar said. “I step up to a first tee and I feel confident and I feel like I belong out here. Back in ’97, I was so new to it, I wasn’t sure I belonged. I loved being out there, but it was … I was way more nervous than I am today. “