MARANA, Ariz. – Two of Matt Kuchar’s biggest victories have come at the game’s top match-play championships. Is there a secret he can share with his PGA Tour peers befuddled by this format on an annual basis?
“I can’t tell you any secrets,” he said after winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play, 2 and 1, over defending champion Hunter Mahan on Sunday. “My game plan is to start off as much like stroke play as I can. ... I don’t really adjust strategy unless something happens out of the ordinary.”
Success in match play is becoming a regular occurrence for him. Kuchar was a relative unknown when he won the 1997 U.S. Amateur as a Georgia Tech sophomore. He was making his Amateur debut, overshadowed by three Walker Cup players in the semifinals.
The story of Kuchar’s amateur stardom, professional struggles and the radical swing change that led to his redemption has been told many times. He’d won once on the PGA Tour before returning to the Web.com Tour in 2006. That’s when he met instructor Chris O’Connell, a disciple of Jim Hardy’s one-plane method. O’Connell helped Kuchar develop the unique swing that has made Kuchar one of the game’s most consistent players.
He rarely seems to hit a foul ball, but he showed another aspect of his game Sunday that has helped him become a seemingly constant contender: his adept wedge play. Kuchar built a 4-up lead on Mahan despite hitting just four greens on the front nine Sunday. Kuchar hit just 7 of 17 greens in their match, the first all-American final since Tiger Woods beat Stewart Cink in 2008. “You saw today how he can get up-and-down,” Mahan said of Kuchar.
That part of his game is often overlooked, but it’s a large part of why he’s now won five times on the PGA Tour, including a WGC and last year’s Players. He has won in four of the past five seasons.
Kuchar had been knocked out by the eventual champion in the past two Accenture Match Plays, losing to Luke Donald in the 2011 semifinals and falling to Mahan in last year’s quarterfinals. Kuchar is now 15-3 at this event.
“Match play I find to be such an amazing, unique format, so much fun and so much pressure,” said Kuchar, who prevailed Sunday in cold, windy conditions at Dove Mountain.
Kuchar won Nos. 4 and 5 with pars, including a bunker shot at the fifth that stopped 3 feet from the hole. A tee shot within 4 feet of the hole at the par-3 sixth hole gave him a 3-up lead.
He won the par-5 eighth after a deft flop from behind the green stopped a few feet from the hole. It was his fourth win in five holes. Another good chip shot led to a par save at the ninth to halve the hole.
Kuchar’s large lead didn’t lead to an uneventful back nine, though. The finalists’ only halves came when both birdied Nos. 12 and 15. Both times, Kuchar holed a birdie putt from several feet outside Mahan both times.
Kuchar’s lead was cut in half after losing Nos. 10th and 11th, though. It looked like Mahan might get to 1 down after hitting his tee shot at the par-3 12th to 5 feet. Kuchar follwed with a shot to 13 feet. He made the putt to halve the hole and keep Mahan at bay.
“The putt was really crucial,” Kuchar said. “When that went in, I felt like I was still in control of the match.”
Kuchar got up-and-down for birdie at the par-5 13th to regain a 3-up lead. He lost the next hole, though, after finding two bunkers and watching Mahan hit his approach to 3 feet.
Kuchar holed an 11-foot birdie putt at the drivable, par-4 15th. Mahan matched from 6 feet to stay 2 down. Mahan won the par-3 16th with par to go 1 down, but conceded the match after finding a bad lie in a fairway bunker on the 17th and hitting his next shot into a bush. He conceded the hole to give Kuchar the victory. That allowed Kuchar to leave Dove Mountain with another prestigious match-play title. The first one gave him his first taste of fame. This one had an even bigger benefit.
“There’s a lot more money at the end of the week,” he said.