Lateral Hazard: Matt Kuchar heats up to win frigid Match Play Championship

Brian Murphy
Yahoo! Sports

Nice win at the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play for Matt Kuchar, who surely becomes the first player to win a WGC event while wearing the same mittens worn by Admiral Richard Byrd in his 1928 Antarctic expedition.

Holy oven mitts, Kooch. The brisk wind that ripped through Arizona for much of the week – even bringing the celebrated snow that cancelled Wednesday's first round – wouldn't seem to favor a Southern boy who was schooled at sweltering Georgia Tech and calls humid St. Simon's Island, Ga., home. But Kuchar's 2-and-1 win over a game Hunter Mahan, who defended his 2012 Match Play title all the way to the championship match, proved that Kuchar can get 'er done in climes both sunny (last year's Players Championship) and chilly – and that the smiling Kuchar burns with an assassin's edge behind those deceivingly friendly pearly whites.

Kuchar's run included taking out the higher-seeded Sergio Garcia (2 and 1) in the round of 32, and kneecapping the confident Robert Garrigus (3 and 2) in the quarterfinals, after Garrigus had boasted to reporters he would be around to the end at Dove Mountain. Kuchar's work wasn't done until he struck a cold-blooded – appropriately enough – shot from the fairway bunker on 17 to about six feet, while Mahan fumbled around in a nearby brush. You knew it was over when Mahan's chip for par ran by the cup and he removed his woolly ski cap in concession, to shake hands. Surely, the hand Mahan shook was toasty, having been warmed by those monster winter gloves he wore in between shots.

Kuchar also overcame more adversity – being able to carve out a win while PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was busy yanking the carpet of attention away with a tone-deaf turn in NBC's TV booth, announcing that the PGA Tour would oppose the USGA and R&A's proposed ban on belly putters. That's great and all that the Tour and Finchem can have their own point of view and their own take on it, but can Finchem let Kuchar and Mahan play their WGC final without him interjecting on the proceedings, wrestling the spotlight away from two excellent players locked in mortal match-play combat?

The late Al Davis used to pull those kinds of moves, making big Raiders-related announcements during the week of the Super Bowl, to take the attention off the league's big party and try to tweak the NFL. But when it comes to Machiavellian megalomania, Finchem isn't even in Davis' world. He's frosh-soph, while Al is eternal varsity. So why wouldn't Finchem wait until maybe the Wednesday of the WGC event at Doral, when the golf media are assembled in two weeks, to hold that news conference? Give it a day all its own, so golf's cognoscenti can properly chin rub and opine. Don't do it on the day Kuchar and Mahan are going at it, even if they are setting back golf's toughness image back by bundling up for winter like Ralphie's little brother in "A Christmas Story."

[Related: Matt Kuchar wins Match Play Championship]

Meanwhile, let's salute Kuchar, who entered the Match Play ranked 23rd in the world, but will now enter the top 10 after his big desert storm. The guy's résumé just keeps building after this, his fifth career win. He won the Vardon Trophy in 2010 for lowest scoring average, and led the PGA Tour money list that year, too. He was tied for the lead on the back nine on the Sunday of the 2012 Masters before bogeying the 16th and finishing third. And if you didn't pick him in your bracket-of-64 before the Match Play, opting for Rory McIlroy (cough, Nike, cough) or Tiger Woods or a trendy pick like Charl Schwartzel, what were you thinking? (I include myself in this scolding.)

After all, Kuchar went 5-1 at Dove Mountain in 2011, finishing third. In 2012, he went 3-1, losing in the quarterfinals to Mahan, the eventual champ. And now, a 6-0 blitz through the chill, including vengeance on Mahan. So that's 14-2 at Dove Mountain in the last three years. At this course, he's a horse. Oddly enough, Kuchar lost all three of his singles matches at the 2010 Ryder Cup (to Ian Poulter), the 2011 President's Cup (to Retief Goosen) and the 2012 Ryder Cup (to Lee Westwood). But at Dove Mountain? He's the Abominable Snowman. He's Yeti in mittens. He's Matt Kuchar, ice king.


Shane Lowry d. Rory McIlroy, 1-up; Charles Howell III d. Tiger Woods, 2 and 1. – First-round results, World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play, The Golf Club at Dove Mountain, Marana, Ariz.

And just like that, it was over.

All the excitement of seeing McIlroy back on a golf course, all the excitement of post-Torrey/post-Obama Tiger set to reclaim his match play dominance … buried in a mound of desert snow and disappointment.

If it seems outrageous that the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked players in the world both lost their first-round matches, it's because it is. Only once before, back in 2002 when Peter O'Malley slayed Tiger, and John Cook stunned Phil Mickelson, have the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked players lost their first-round matches on the first day of the WGC Match Play.

Each case can be analyzed differently. For Tiger, the exit was odd for a couple of reasons: 1) He's coming off a win at Torrey Pines; 2) He was playing Charles Howell III, who broke into golf in the early 2000s as a potential star until Tiger crushed his very will to ever take a club back in anger with repeated beatings in majors. If Tiger would feel comfortable beating a first-round foe, Howell would seem a prime candidate for a smacking.

But Howell not only beat Tiger, he volunteered to reporters he'd never beaten Tiger ever before – not in competition or in their many "friendly" practice rounds years ago. So what gives? As Tiger ages, the whole "home course" thing seems to be taking root more and more. His four wins since the Escalade-into-the-tree incident have all come in familiar climes: Muirfield Village, Bay Hill, his own tournament at Congressional and Torrey Pines. When he plays "away games," as it were, he plays downright ordinary golf. Given that he hasn't advanced past the second round in the WGC Match Play since 2008, it might be fair to presume he doesn't like playing golf at Dove Mountain. Or, perhaps he has disdain for playing golf at Dove Mountain. Or, maybe best put, perhaps he abhors playing golf at Dove Mountain.

[Also: Tiger Woods, Elin Nordegren spend day out with kids (photo)]

As for Rory, I know Yahoo! Sports' esteemed Devil Ball blogger Shane Bacon has told those of us who are worried about Rory's switch to Nike that we are spineless lame-os, or something to that effect. And I get it, Shane. I do. Many, many players have switched equipment and thrived; and Rory's lack of playing time in 2013 is a major culprit. He could very well break free at the Honda Classic this week, where he is defending champion.

But still … you ever get a bad feeling about something, like a teenager in a horror flick who doesn't want to go canoeing at midnight at summer camp, because there's an escaped murderer on the loose? I'm not saying I fear Rory's switch to Nike has summer horror flick written all over it, but I am saying I am uncomfortable with a sensitive and aware youngster like McIlroy messing with his nascent rise to the top of the golf world. I'm still watching, with keen interest. And not looking to go canoeing at midnight on the lake, what with that escaped murderer and all.


"We've concluded we should be opposed to it. Our view is, [belly putters] have been around for a generation, and the game of golf has done quite well. Unless you have a compelling reason to change it, you shouldn't." – Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner, upstaging the final match of the WGC Accenture Match Play, on NBC.

If anything, Finchem choosing this time and place to announce the Tour's opposition to the proposed USGA ban on belly putters fortifies my support for the USGA. I've already detailed my problem with Finchem's timing, which was wrong on almost every level.

But the Tour fighting the ban? Typical. The players are circling the wagons, with the belly putter crowd wanting to protect what's theirs – cash, privilege and the chance to enact a putting stroke that violates the integrity of the game. Not necessarily in that order, by the way.

Finchem is asking for data to prove there's a competitive advantage. Meanwhile, I'm asking for data that shows anchoring a putting stroke is consistent with the integrity of the game. The players ask: Why not bifurcate, and have different rules for amateurs and the professionals? Meanwhile, I ask: Why don't players who use belly putters learn to make a putting stroke that doesn't involve anchoring the club against a steady plane, like their bodies?

[Also: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy both lose in first round of Accenture Match Play]

The USGA answered Finchem's "Dare at Dove Mountain" with a little Duelin' Banjos news release of their own, rightly sticking by their guns. We are headed for an old-fashioned shootout at the Belly Putter Corral, golf fans. And I'm rooting for the guys in white hats.


The Match Play final was getting heated late, and Mahan, 4-down at the turn, was charging hard. He closed it to 1-down on the 17th tee, and things were getting good. And then … a drive into a fairway bunker, a bladed shot into some unidentified Arizona shrub, a wild hack to loosen the golf ball, a desperate chip for par that never had a chance, and the next thing you know, Mahan was formally shedding his winter toboggan cap to shake hands with Kuchar.

Too bad. I would have enjoyed seeing the match go to the 18th hole. Too often in these WGC Match Play events, we don't get a climactic finish. In fact, it's only gone to the 18th hole once – when Kevin Sutherland beat Scott McCarron, 1-up, in 2002, otherwise known as the "Match Play Final That Killed Off a Million Media Members, Except For Those Of Us Who Loved the Northern California Angle."

So to see Kuchar vs. Mahan go to 18 would have been a fresh change. And even though Kuchar also drove into the fairway bunker on 17, he handled his fate much better, hitting a brilliant shot to about six feet. But let's get Mahan on the road to winning the 17th, just so we could have seen the two go to 18 all-square. Let's go back out to the 17 tee, stick another peg in the ground for Mahan and … give that man a mulligan!


Stressing over Rory's Nike clubs? Wondering what's up with Tiger losing a match to Chucky Triple Sticks? Despair no more, golf fan. A year after Rory and Tiger went 1-2 at the Honda Classic, a win that vaulted McIlroy to No. 1 in the world, the duo return to PGA National to take on the Bear Trap and the haters.

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