Match Play's Predictable Unpredictability

Match Play's Predictable Unpredictability

Hunter Mahan was in the midst of a streak that was genuinely difficult to believe. In 11 matches at Dove Mountain Golf Course spanning two years, he'd played 169 holes without trailing once. He won the Accenture Match Play Championship 2012, and now, in the 2013 semifinals, he was two strokes up on Ian Poulter, the greatest match-play golfer of his generation and the 2010 tournament champion. Unlike Poulter's previous opponents, Mahan seemed at ease as he faced a pitch from 68 feet behind the green on no. 12. Poulter was on the putting surface, and this looked like the moment when Europe's Ryder Cup hero would make his move. Crosswinds in excess of 30 mph were whipping through the flags above the covered seating area, creating a sound like the roar of a gallery. But the spectators were silent as Mahan pitched, watching the ball catch the downslope and trickle toward the hole. A murmur started, not quite a match for the flags yet. It slowly gained steam as the possibility became real, and then erupted when the ball disappeared in the hole.

 

Poulter gave no hint of a reaction, but his putt was short, and now Mahan was 3-up. Twists like these, when a perceived disadvantage is reversed with a single great shot, had been dubbed "the wonder of match play" by Poulter himself after he sank a 40-foot putt against Steve Stricker on Saturday. He would use less poetic words to describe Mahan's pitch.

 

Two holes later, when Poulter missed a short attempt at 14 to lose the hole, I was just behind Mahan as he turned away from the green. His eyebrows rose and a surprised smile crept across his face. He tamed the pleasure in a millisecond; great match-play golfers don't believe they've won until it's good and over, and especially not against cutthroats like Poulter. But for a moment, he gave in to the triumph. At 4-up with four holes to play, he knew he'd just beaten the most intimidating man on the golf course.

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