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PGA Tour Confidential: The WGC-Accenture Match Play

Photo: Kohjiro Kinno / SI

Hunter Mahan took out Rory McIlroy in the championship match for his second career WGC title.

Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in our all-new live Readers' Confidential or in the comments section below.

LESSONS FROM TUCSON
Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: Hunter Mahan putted lights-out, made 35 birdies for the week and dispatched Rory McIlroy to win the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Looked to me like Mahan has finally figured out how to putt like a champion, but he also played well tee to green. (That shank in his semifinal notwithstanding.) What do you take away from Tucson?

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: As Mahan said after his win, Rory McIlroy is the No. 1 player, regardless of what the World Ranking says.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, Golf.com: We can stop talking about Hunter Mahan's chip at the 2010 Ryder Cup. I think he's over it.

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, Golf.com: This is a huge confidence-builder for Mahan, and another little setback for McIlroy's confidence. But I don't think Mahan totally buries the Ryder Cup ghosts until he does that in Chicago in September.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Mahan looked great, but the key is the short game. It worked this week, mostly, but until he does it consistently, it's hard to totally buy in.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: He has always been a great ballstriker. It's no secret that the short game has always been his Achilles' heel, but he sure looked comfortable with the new putter in his bag. If he continues to putt like that, watch out.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I love how Hunter is turning a weakness, his short game, into a strength. He could be a world-beater if he keeps that going.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: It was awesome to watch two of the best swings in golf, if not the two best, battle it out this afternoon.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: Aside from this being my favorite non-major event of the season, my takeaway is that Rory McIlroy is the best golfer in the world and Hunter Mahan appears poised to join the game's elite players. As the pressure ratcheted up, his game held together, including his short game.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I like what Dave said, but let's not rush to judgment over a match play event where a player beats only one guy per round. Mahan made a lot of birdies, but how would that shank play out in a U.S. Open? That's a potential 9. There's also a difference between putting in match play and stroke play, as Monty, Westwood and Sergio have proven many times. There's hope for Mahan, but it's too early to tell just what heights he might reach. Like Rory, he hasn't piled up a lot of wins so far. Maybe this is the start.

Have a question for Gary Van Sickle's mailbag? E-mail editor@golf.com or ask it on Facebook.

Hanger: I'm with Gary on this. I love match play, but shooting the lowest number is still the best test of pure golf.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Some people consider Match Play the true test, which is why most club championships are match play, and why the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur are match play.

Van Sickle: Are you kidding? Match play produces the worst winners. Look how many players won this Match Play without ever beating Tiger Woods when he was No. 1. For any other title, they had to beat Tiger for four straight days and 72 holes. In match play, they didn't even have to face him.

Dusek: Maybe my point is that Mahan has been floating in the 12-25 range on the Official World Golf Ranking. Winning a head-to-head event like this should help him believe that he has as much chance of winning a major championship as anyone else.

Van Sickle: A win is a win, no matter the format. If this pushes Mahan over the top, I'm all for it. More simply and more importantly, I loved the way he rolled that putter. He was one of the few guys making putts on a regular basis on Jack's funky greens.

Wei: Hunter and Rory are both studs. The guy who played the best all week won: 35 birdies! And I'm also pretty sure he's over the whole Ryder Cup chip flub.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, Golf.com: Displaying that type of game for five straight days under pressure tells me this could be the year Mahan makes the leap. But I still expect McIlroy to be No. 1 at the end of the season, and probably by the second week of April.

Van Sickle: Winning golf, especially in match play, is about making putts. Mahan rolled out that new Ping Nome putter and was a new man. Let's see if he can use it as well in stroke play. If so, he's legit top-5-in-the-world material. That's the best we've ever seen him play.

Mick Rouse, editorial assistant, SI Golf Group: Hunter Mahan is the real deal. I think he'll have multiple wins this season and will contend for a major, if not win one. Other things I took away: I did not expect Luke Donald and Webb Simpson to be trounced in the first round, and again, I'm concerned about Rickie. I know he made a spirited, Ryder Cup-esque comeback late in the round, and Toms is an incredibly solid match play guy, but not making it out of the first round on top of his other poor performances this season is disappointing.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: There's no doubt Rory needs to finish off more of these near-misses. I think he'll learn to. The guy has shown more of a killer instinct post-Augsta. The flip side is that an average week for him is now a top 5. I don't think Rory ever had his best stuff at the Match Play. Playing Westy brought out his best, but in the other matches he was just okay. Consider it a sign of how good he's become that he could go as deep as he did.

Rouse: And how good he can be with extra motivation to win.

Reiterman: We also can't overlook Westwood's coming up short again on the big stage. I still think he can pick off a major this year, but that loss to Rory had to really sting.

Gorant: It amazes me how people can write off Tiger but continue to believe in Westwood, who's older than Woods and has never been able to get it done.

Wei: Who are those people? They need a reality check if they believe in Westy and not Tiger.

Hack: Westwood has better knees.

Wei: Does he? They tend to get kind of shaky under pressure, especially on the back nine on Sundays at majors!

Hack: I was speaking medically, of course.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What did you take away from the final day at the Accenture?

Rory, final round, Accenture Match Play
Kohjiro Kinno / SI
Rory McIlroy lost the final match at the Accenture and missed a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking.

 

RORY STUMBLES IN TITLE MATCH
Morfit: What do we think happened to Rory on the front nine of the championship match? Was there a letdown after the Westwood match? Was he thinking about being No. 1? Was he tired? The big-picture question is: Why does Rory have no trouble collecting top-three finishes, but some trouble collecting top-one finishes?

Shipnuck: All credit to Hunter, who's a deserving champ, but the freighted semi-final between Rory and Westy was the match of the week. It was great theatre (note snobby spelling), and it was a big deal for Rory to dig deep and slay his ex-stablemate. I doubt he's even that bummed to have lost the final. Dusting Westwood was that satisfying.

Hanger: Rory was clearly disappointed with the loss to Mahan, but he said in his press conference that the Westwood match was his main event. "It was like my final in a way. That was the one I wanted all week and I got, and that's what I got myself up for."

Godich: He needs to set the bar a little higher.

Herre: McIlroy is not the closer that Tiger was, but Tiger set the bar freakishly high. Golf may never see a closer like him again.

Dusek: Exactly. Rory has mastered getting himself in position to win tournaments, but he has yet to master sealing the deal. It's a different skill, and one I'm confident he'll attain. Once he does, McIlroy is going to have a long run as the dominant player in golf.

Godich: I've said before that Rory needs to learn how to close. Yes, he is only 22, but these near misses will start to weigh on him. I don't buy the letdown theory after beating Westwood. If anything, it should have motivated him.

Wei: With the exception of this morning against Westwood and the second nine against Mahan, Rory probably had his C+ game and still managed to reach the finals.

Godich: But I also saw a Golf Channel bracket that said he was the beneficiary of less-than-stellar play from most of his opponents, who struggled to make birdies.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: If you're saying McIlroy -- at 22 with two PGA Tour wins, including a major, and three more wins worldwide -- can't close the deal, then you're only comparing him to one guy.

Hack: Bingo. Ain't a thing wrong with Rory McIlroy.

Reiterman: Rory's still in contention every week, so I'm not going to kill him yet for not closing the deal more often. The SI Vault tells me Tom Watson had trouble closing early in his career. He turned out OK.

Godich: Maybe so, but there is a lot more depth out there than there was in Watson's day.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What went wrong with Rory in the title match? Are you concerned he hasn't won more titles so far in his career?

RORY AND WESTWOOD RELATIONSHIP
Morfit: What about the psychodrama that was McIlroy-Westwood. That match was riveting to watch, and McIlroy showed us a lot by coming back. What do you make of that relationship? The way I see it, Westwood comes across in tweets and comments like McIlroy's resentful big brother, if not an outright bully. You think McIlroy left Chubby in part because of friction with Westwood?

Shipnuck: It was a sort of sibling rivalry. Now that they don't have to play nice, it's much pricklier. Rory didn't leave Chubby because of Westy; he left because he wanted to be the big kahuna. That was not going to happen at ISM given Chubby's media profile, the other major winners in the stable and the fact that Chubby and Westy are best friends.

Herre: Conventional wisdom holds that Chubby had a better relationship with Rory's dad than he did with Rory, and Westwood is, what, almost 15 years older?

Ritter: Rory-Lee kind of reminds me of Tiger-Phil, circa 2003, when Phil was taking petty shots at Tiger's equipment and not winning majors. I wonder if Captain Olazabal will pair Rory and Lee together at the Ryder Cup like Hal Sutton did with Phil and Tiger at the '04 Cup in Oakland Hills. Something tells me U.S. fans shouldn't hold their breath.

Van Sickle: No chance Rory and Lee are a team.

Morfit: There's definitely some bad blood between Rory and Lee, and it seems to go beyond the tweeting and Rory's leaving ISM. As far as I could tell, they weren't even saying the perfunctory "Nice shot."

Hack: That relationship is chilly. I thought the NBC crew did a decent job trying to dissect the entirety of it, from Westwood's owning a part of ISM to the whole nationality issue.

Walker: Westwood took the rookie hazing with McIlroy too far, and McIlroy pushed back. As far as McIlroy's leaving ISM, I'm guessing the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 reasons were money, money and money.

Dusek: We'll never know the whole story about why Rory left Chubby, but I got the feeling that Rory was looked at as the little guy for the "big boys" like Westwood and Clarke to protect. It was as if they wanted to keep him in the European club they'd created without losing their positions as leaders of the club, even though Rory had clearly become the best player.

Wei: I like Westwood, but almost every time he makes a comment/tweet about Rory, I cringe. He comes across as bitter and resentful.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What's your take on the McIlroy-Westwood rivalry?

SURPRISES OF THE WEEK
Morfit: Let's talk about the biggest surprise of the week, which for me was probably a toss-up between Mark Wilson and Sang-Moon Bae. Am I crazy, or is there so much talent flooding into golf that it's becoming hard to keep track? And which player surprised you the most?

Herre: Wilson's a gritty little sucker. Enjoyed watching him advance all the way to Sunday and then take down Westwood.

Godich: I can't help but think about how Wilson was a perennial Q-school guy just a few years ago. He had to be one of the shortest hitters in the field. Yet he just kept winning.

Gorant: Wilson always surprises me, but I guess he shouldn't any more. Bae has looked like the real deal since last fall.

Lipsey: Mark Wilson has serious game. Nothing exciting, just a winning game.

Van Sickle: Give a tip of the cap to Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, who touted Bae as best-in-class out of Q-school and saw him as a top-20 player in the World Ranking. Bae can really play. Looks like the Korean invasion in men's golf is well under way.

Dusek: A lot of tour reps who are on the range week-in and week-out rave about Bae, who came into this week No. 44 in the rankings.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Who was your biggest surprise at the Match Play?

Tiger Woods, 2012 Accenture Match Play
Kohjiro Kinno / SI
Tiger Woods missed a 5-foot putt on the 18th hole and lost to Nick Watney in the second round in Tucson.


TIGER'S EARLY EXIT
Morfit: Okay, let's talk Tiger. That was about all I really expected to see from him in Tucson. His putting seems to be getting worse. I predicted he'd win this year, but clearly he has some work to do with the flatstick. Your thoughts on the erstwhile Great One?

Gorant: Give it one day, Cam. It'll all be fixed.

Hanger: Right. That quote after the match about the mechanics of his stroke? ("I was fighting the blocks all day. I'm taking it back shut. I need to make that toe move.") He's overthinking this stuff. Just putt the damn ball, like the new Phil!

Reiterman: The missed putt on 18 was a shocker, but there were a lot of guys struggling on those funky greens this week. No shame in losing to Nick Watney. On to the Honda.

Gorant: I'm with Ryan. I'm not going to judge based on those greens. The Honda will provide a tough test and a good measuring stick.

Van Sickle: It's just one tournament, but this one did not look like progress for Woods. They can't all be gems. Honda will be much more interesting. There are a lot of holes with water right -- a lot of holes.

Godich: Good point. I've been saying all along that Tiger needs to play more, but I never expected him to add the Honda and PGA National. Water, wind, deep rough . . .

Herre: It's always something with Tiger nowadays. I suspect he'll have some weeks when he puts it all together, but more when he doesn't. Better get used to it.

Van Sickle: I'm not sure I understand Tiger's stated insistence on matching up his chipping and putting strokes with his swing. Nothing was wrong with his previous short game or putting stroke, unless his nerves simply won't allow him to roll the ball like he did with his old stroke. And I don't recall hearing a teacher say it all has to match perfectly.

Rouse: Right. Just do what you know how to do and hit the ball. Over-analyzing things doesn't help anyone, especially athletes.

Shipnuck: Right now Tiger is, compared to the Tour as a whole, an above-average ball-striker and mediocre putter. He has lost his intimidation factor and, judging by Abu Dhabi and Pebble, now he has the same Sunday doubts as everybody else. He'll win again, but he has a lot of work to do.

Dusek: Has there ever been a golfer who was clutch, lost it, and then became clutch again? An injured knee or shoulder can be mended, but once the psyche gets cracked I don't think it can ever be as strong as it once was.

Godich: Exactly. Think how many times over the last few weeks we've thought, "This is the week."

Hack: I expected more out of Tiger at the Match Play, but seeing him lose to Nick Watney reminded me just how many great young players are out there now. Tiger's road to 18 majors is filled with Nick Watneys.

Rouse: Anytime Tiger falters, people react as if he has lost it forever. During the live blog Wednesday, when it looked like Fernandez-Castano might squeak it out, the "Tiger's finished " comments came in like wildfire. He is a pro and knows what he's struggling with. I fully expect him to work on it and figure out his issues.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Is Tiger's early exit a sign that his game is not major-championship ready? Do you except him to win a PGA Tour event this year?

KUCHAR'S FIGHTIN' WORDS FOR FALDO
Morfit: Let's talk about maybe the strangest moment of the week: Matt Kuchar said on the air that he'd like to punch Nick Faldo in the back of the neck. This alluded to Faldo's criticism of the belly putter a few days earlier, but it seemed to come way out of left field. Anybody else think this was odd? And since Kooch brought it up, who do we like in the tale of the tape?

Herre: Typical golf kerfuffle. I've heard that Kooch is a world-class needler, No. 1 in the World Ranking.

Hanger: I think the non-standard-putter users out there have got to be sick of being called cheaters all the time. I'm on their side. If it didn't require skill, everyone would be using it. Kuchar said he was joking, but I do think there was pent-up frustration showing there.

Wei: They definitely resent being called cheaters. In the upcoming PGA Tour Confidential standalone issue of SI Golf+, Scott McCarron voices his "disappointment" in people throwing around the "c-word," especially when it's a player who is using a non-standard putter himself. He made some good points.

Dusek: Golfers who use a long putter aren't cheating, but being called a cheater is insulting, so guys like Kuchar, Keegan Bradley and Brendan Steele have every right to be sick of hearing from players who have chosen not to use a club that is 100-percent legal. As far as a fight goes, if you walked down a dark alley and saw Matt Kuchar coming at you, you wouldn't be scared -- you'd be relieved.

Gorant: It was weird. Clearly the remarks hit a nerve. He's definitely a guy whose success has come after switching to the belly. And although Kooch is 6-foot-4, he admitted he wants no part of Faldo in a scrape.

Reiterman: Even though he was laughing through parts of the interview, I did not think he was joking. Kuchar needs to work on his delivery. And if he wants to punch a guy in the back of the neck, start with "GET IN THE HOLE!" guy.

Van Sickle: I don't see it being a real ferocious fight, depending on which brand of pillows they use. And why in the back of the neck? How about a punch in the face or the gut? Golfers can't fight.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: What's your take on Kuchar's comments? And who wins a cage match between Kuchar and Faldo?

Hunter Mahan, final round, 2012 Accenture Match Play
Kohjiro Kinno / SI
Hunter Mahan rang up 35 birdies in 96 total holes during his week at the Accenture Match Play.


MAHAN'S FUTURE RANKING
Morfit: With his win, Mahan goes to ninth in the World Ranking. Where do you think he will be ranked at the end of 2012? Give a number, please. I'll say sixth.

Gorant: Eighth

Lipsey: Fourth

Rouse: Fourth

Godich: Fourth. He's going to win at least two more times this year.

Van Sickle: Mahan at sixth is about right, considering I'm not sure which American player is going to rank higher than that.

Wei: Sixth

Ritter: Eleventh

Dusek: Tenth

Shipnuck: Fifth

Walker: I see Mahan somewhere between 8 and 10. He looks great, but there is a lot of talent at the top of the game right now.

Hack: I'll say fifth for Mahan, aided by another win at Hartford and some strong showings in the majors.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: At the end of the season, Mahan's ranking will be _____.

THE NEXT NO. 1?
Morfit: Rory McIlroy is now renting a place in West Palm Beach in the run-up to the Masters, which means he'll have a home game of sorts at the Honda. Yes or no, and please explain your answer: McIlroy will be No. 1 in the world, officially, one week from today.

Van Sickle: No. He doesn't know the course, he's knackered after six rounds in five days, and it'll probably be windy as heck -- not good for his towering ball flight. Factor in the letdown and he may not have a top-10 finish.

Dusek: Rory will be No. 1 in the world one week from today because he's playing consistently better than anyone on the planet right now, and Luke Donald is showing that his amazing 2011 is going to be tough to follow. He and Webb Simpson, the other ATM machine from last season, have failed to show the same form they displayed in 2011.

Godich: I am going to say no on Rory. Too much wind and rough. He finishes T-22.

Hanger: Judging by last week's Match Play predictions in Confidential, I wouldn't put much stock in these answers. Ritter damn near nailed it, however: "I have a hunch Match Play might be where Rory wins and makes his final push to No. 1."

Morfit: I'll say he gets to No. 1 as long as he's paired with Westwood or Woods in the first two rounds. Those pairings would prevent a Mc-Letdown.

Walker: I think McIlroy will play well enough to take the No. 1 ranking this week, but even if he doesn't, it's just a matter of time. I like his Masters preparation plan: Move to West Palm, play Honda and Doral, and then take three weeks off before Augusta. He'll be rested when it matters.

Tell us what you think in the all-new readers' live Confidential or in the comments section below: Will McIlroy take over the No. 1 ranking next week?

 

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