Tour and News

At Match Play, Tim Finchem dug in and Matt Kuchar outlasted the field

Photo: Kohjiro Kinno / SI

Matt Kuchar hit eight of 13 fairways and only seven of 17 greens in a final played in blustery conditions, but he needed only 20 putts.

The Accenture Match Play Championship was, to use a phrase of Tour life, kind of a weird deal. The show’s producers took 64 golfers, plucked from various outposts of the global golf village, and deposited them at high altitude in the Arizona desert 20 miles from the nearest Cheesecake Factory. The contestants packed long putters, cleated shoes and other tools of their trade for the grueling five-day competition. The remote venue, Dove Mountain, offered some unexpected twists of its own. Snow on opening day, halting play and throwing a wrench in the carefully orchestrated scheduling. An arctic blast on the last. Painfully slow rounds that tested patience and endurance. It was Survivor, golf-style.

Matt Kuchar’s two kids, Georgia boys, reveled in the snow, throwing barehanded snowballs until their hands turned red and stiff. Five days later their ever-smiling, pinked-cheek father won the thing wearing ski mittens between shots. He took the final, 2 and 1, over Hunter Mahan, who replaced his customary flat-brimmed baseball hat with a black ski cap. There were cacti bending in the biting winds, and sand was in the air. Take a bow, Kooch. You were the ultimate survivor.

And a classy one. The match ended on the 17th hole, ultimately conceded by Mahan, the defending champ, who went from bad to worse chiefly by drawing a lousy, cuppy lie in a fairway trap. “I was bummed to see it end with a bad break,” Kuchar said with obvious sincerity. He should lead a seminar in graciousness at the next Excel Sports Management off-site. He and Tiger Woods are both ESMers, looked after by Mark Steinberg, a.k.a. Dr. No.

Tiger and Rory McIlroy had decamped to South Florida long before that Sunday cold front roared in. Tiger and Rory, first-round losers. Not the headline NBC wanted to see. In Dubai, in January, they both missed the cut. Woods won after that, at Torrey Pines, but in three rounds with his new Nike toys, McIlroy, to be generous, has been meh. This week, at the Honda in Palm Beach Gardens, he and Woods and their 26 or so Nike sticks will be at it again.

Phil Mickelson didn’t even make it as far as the first round. He won his inaugural Tour event as a 20-year-old amateur down the mountain and east on I-10, at TPC Starr Pass, but for the second consecutive year he skipped the greater Tucson event. You know how cautious Phil is in his public remarks, but an educated guess is that he loves neither the Dove Mountain course (thorny and contrived) nor noted World Golf Championship booster Tim Finchem. Tweaking biggie is sport for Phil.

The commissioner, however, was on site, and not to negotiate naming rights for Dove Mountain. He was there to present the winner with his riches and also to answer a longish series of refreshingly direct questions from Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller during the Sunday broadcast. The questions were generally about the three issues that are hot-button only by the normally placid standards of the PGA Tour.

Whittled way down, here’s what Finchem said. Regarding the USGA’s proposed ban on anchored putting: The Tour is against it. Regarding bifurcation: The Tour reserves the right to make its own rules. Regarding Vijay Singh and his potential suspension for using (yes) deer-antler spray: The Tour is still sorting through it.

 

Finchem is so smooth. Smooth, like Keith Stone. Actually, the Keystone beer spokesdude has nothing on our commissioner. (Compare their YouTube clips.) In a Sunday press conference, Finchem was asked if he could see a day when the USGA and the R&A outlaw anchoring and the PGA Tour allows it. “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. That’s a good one. Everybody else who cares about golf has thought about that question, except the commissioner of the PGA Tour.

The answer to that question is why the proposed 2016 ban on anchored putting is actually in jeopardy. The USGA and the R&A, belatedly, have come to the realization that anchored putting is not in keeping with golf’s free-swinging traditions. The PGA Tour—and its partner on this issue, the PGA of America—is worried about fairness to those who anchor and the growth of the game. This is a real thing.

The commissioner says the issue is not a “donnybrook.” Give it time, Keith. Wait until the European tour, the LPGA, the Asian tour and everybody else weighs in on an issue that tests your level of golf orthodoxy. Puzo’s Five Families will look like choirboys before anchored putting is settled in the old gent’s game.

As for the four golfers who were still around on Sunday—Kuchar and Mahan, plus old bug-eye (Ian Poulter), who lost to Jason Day in the consolation match—only one, the Beaver, carries a long wand. And Kuchar is O.K. regardless of how the issue unfolds because he does not anchor his 43 -inch putter. He runs the shaft up his left arm.

In other words, the butt end of the grip is not in his navel. (That’s the method Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els each used en route to winning a major in the last 18 months.) Kuchar is not holding the grip against his chest with his hand. (That’s what Adam Scott and his wingman, Tim Clarke, do so winningly.) He’s certainly not holding it under his chin, as does a free man in Paris, and surely others in other places. Kuchar makes the kind of free-swinging putting stroke that the USGA believes is at the core of the game.

When his long week at Dove Mountain was finally over, Kuchar was a study in down-the-middle diplomacy on the putting issue. “I don’t have a real great say on the ruling,” he said. “I’m going to play by the rules they tell me to play by.” In fact, he has a lot to say about it. He won a USGA title, the 1997 U.S. Amateur, a match-play event. That got him in the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British. Last year he won the PGA Tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship. That got him $1.7 million. He has allegiances all over the place.

Mahan sounded a similar note. Asked about the proposed ban, he said, “It’s a difficult question.” He paused and tilted his head, looking for an answer. “Do I feel like anchoring is right? No. Do I feel like the timing is 20 years too late? Yeah.” You’re going to hear that analysis a thousand times in the months to come but never more succinctly.

The Match Play week is a long one, and the tournament’s isolated location makes it seem longer. Mahan and Kuchar and all the other ­contestants—including Hiroyuki Fujita, Thorbjorn Olesen and Alexander Noren—stayed for free at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain Hotel & Monastery where, by Day 3, some of the monks had so OD’d on adobe brown that they were dreaming of TPC Southwind. They were all given GM vehicles for their milelong trip to the 1st tee, but, alas, not ice scrapers. No one said it would be easy.

To claim the title, Kuchar had to win six matches and, as it played out, twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday. For endurance alone, mental and physical, the judges gave him extra points. Mahan never ventured off Dove Mountain over the course of six days, a brave act in and of itself. Finchem, maybe going for macho survivalist points, made one long Sunday golf-course walk in nothing but a sport coat. His sensible colleague Mark Russell made the rounds in a parka you could bring to the tundra.

When it was time for Mahan to congratulate Kuchar, he took off his ski cap, but he had it back on for his runner-up press conference. Mahan said reading greens without his customary brimmed hat was “a tad” different. These elite golfers are not normal people. They are highly calibrated.

Next year is the last year of the current deal that has the Accenture Match Play on the Dove Mountain course. It could continue on the mount for 2015 and beyond that, but it doesn’t seem likely. If you want to host the event, raise your hand. Maybe Phil’s name could somehow be attached to the tournament. After all, Arnold has an event. Jack has an event. Tiger has two. Thorbjorn Olesen, say hello to your host, Phil Mickelson. Sounds like a good time, doesn’t it?

In the end Kuchar led the most daring existence of all last week. At one point he loaded his wife and kids into his tournament courtesy car, headed down spooky Twin Peaks Boulevard and went to a mall. He went off-campus, and survived to tell the tale.

He’ll be coming back next year to defend, packing his 43-inch putter and his USGA-sanctioned putting method. This Matt Kuchar. The guy has mittens, a repeating swing, $23 million in career earnings and a putting method that nobody is questioning. He’s 34 and coming into his prime. In last week’s weirdness he was the smiley survivor. It’s no wonder.
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