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March 05, 2012
Seventy-two holes of stroke play remains the best measure of a golfer, but Hunter Mahan's decisive takedown of Rory McIlroy validated a format we Tour pros don't play enough
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March 05, 2012

The Beauty Of Match Play

Seventy-two holes of stroke play remains the best measure of a golfer, but Hunter Mahan's decisive takedown of Rory McIlroy validated a format we Tour pros don't play enough

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I just love the way Rory McIlroy plays, and for my money he's the best in the game right now. Still, watching the Rory--Hunter Mahan final on Sunday—on my couch at home, just like you—I was rooting for Hunter. I mean, come on. It's a Ryder Cup year!

Did Hunter play the best golf last week? That I don't know. I know what you know: He won the most matches. The Accenture Match Play Championship is a fantastic event, and I wish we played more tournaments with that format. But nothing will tell you who is playing best over a week like 72 holes of stroke play.

My buddy Zach Johnson, who lives down the street from me in Sea Island, played Hunter in the first round. Neither played that well, and they were tied after 18 holes. On the 19th Zach drove it into the desert and lost. Then Hunter won his next five matches, never having to play the 18th hole. That's how you win the Match Play. You win six consecutive matches. Doesn't matter how. That's what makes it so different and fun.

Like Zach, I was a first-round loser. We commiserated by thoroughly revisiting our rounds. Zach knows all about my miscues in my 1-up loss to Matt Kuchar, another guy from Sea Island, same as I know of his against Hunter. Zach and I started our blow by blows—as Davis Love III, also of Sea Island, calls these recaps—in the player parking lot. Our BBBs continued over dinner, and on Thursday, when we flew home together. It's great to have a friend and a fellow Tour player to travel with. Who else is going to listen to this stuff?

Watching Hunter in the final, you could see how his confidence was growing and growing. Did you notice the way he started walking after some of his shots when his ball was in the air? You don't see that every day. I have that feeling sometimes, kind of playing on instinct, like a golfing animal. But I wish I had it more. I've won five times on Tour, but it seems like in big-time events—especially in the majors and these World Golf Championships—I try to be too perfect and get too mechanical and forget that I'm an athlete. Watching Hunter was a great reminder to me of the role that instinct, athleticism and confidence play in winning tournaments. I'd take off my flat-brim hat to him if I had one.

Rory has that same thing. I played against him last year in the first round of the Match Play, and he beat me 4 and 2. It was the only time I've played with him, and I was really impressed. Even if you know nothing about golf, you can tell that his swing is wonderful. It's his rhythm, his flexibility, his balance and most especially his speed through the ball. And then there's his walk, the strut in his step. His swagger. I like it. As his control of our match increased, so did his strut. And that's O.K. That's an athlete being an athlete. I play my best when I have that. When I got in from my match with Rory last year, I was so mad I went straight to the gym to work off the frustration. And about five minutes later, in came Rory. Impressive.

You can stage a match play event anywhere. Dove Mountain is an excellent course for Rory—and for Hunter and for me, too. Driving the ball long and in play is a central part of how Rory and Hunter play, and Dove Mountain has a lot of holes where, if you can carry a 290-yard bunker, you have a huge advantage over a guy who cannot. I hope I get back there next year. I think I can do some damage.

And don't get the impression I always lose in the first round. I don't—promise! In 2008, I beat Ernie Els 6 and 5 in the first round. When he won a par-5 with a 3, he walked off the green and said, "Can that count twice because I won with an eagle?" Everybody laughed. They say you can tell a lot about a person by the way he plays golf. Ernie was so gracious and good-humored. Not everybody would be.

At a Ryder Cup years ago, Tom Lehman said if we had match play every week we'd be as bad as tennis players. In other words, we'd be in each other's faces. Gentlemanly grace would be out the window. He's probably right. I know in match play I'm a lot more likely to think, I don't like this guy and I want to beat him bad. I don't say that with pride; I'm simply being truthful. It's human nature. The converse of that is it's not easy to play a friend in match play.

Tour playoffs are like match play events in miniature, and I've been in three of them. I won my first two. Then last year I lost to Lucas Glover, my Clemson teammate and another guy from Sea Island, at Wachovia. It's never easy playing a close friend.

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