This is not the Final Four you expected for the World Match Play Championship. It never is. That’s the one thing you can count on in this event, which doesn’t rank among the most significant tournaments on the PGA Tour, but it does rank among the most entertaining.
There is no way you had Mark Wilson against Hunter Mahan, and Lee Westwood versus Rory McIlroy in your Final Four. While Westwood and McIlroy were favorites, and Mahan is no big surprise—remember, he’s the guy who would’ve won last year’s Tour Championship if Bill Haas hadn’t gotten up and down from a lake—Wilson is the real wild card in this bunch.
There is a little something extra at stake, since Westwood or McIlroy could ascend to the world No. 1 ranking by winning this title. One of them will have a chance, since they will square off Sunday morning in the semifinal. It will be Mahan and Wilson in the other semifinal, with the final played in the afternoon.
So what does Wilson have to do to get a little respect? Winning hasn’t done it. He has five victories, more than Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Haas and even McIlroy. His last three wins have come in a little over a year, in Hawaii and Phoenix last year and at the rechristened Humana Challenge this year.
But he’s 37, he’s not a big hitter and he’s not a guy, so far, who has contended in major championships. When less is expected, perhaps achievements get less notice. All Wilson has done is knock out Johnson, the star of one of the PGA Tour’s “These Guys Are Good” commercial spots, three straight years in this event. Once might be lucky, twice might be a coincidence, but three times is a trend.
Actually, Wilson’s underdog story makes Sunday’s semifinals even more interesting. Don’t count him out. Anything can happen in 18 holes, and this tournament doesn’t have a history of being predictable.
Looking ahead to Sunday morning’s semifinals, and the Sunday afternoon final, here are my picks:
Mark Wilson vs. Hunter Mahan (9:05 a.m. EST)
Wilson has played solid golf, but Johnson played poorly and all but handed him that match, while Peter Hanson made three bogeys early on the back nine to play himself out of the quarterfinal match. Mahan, meanwhile, is the hottest golfer in the field. He racked up nine birdies in Friday’s match, then he trounced Matt Kuchar, 6 and 5, on Saturday after Kuchar’s putter went cold. He couldn’t buy a putt if he had a credit card.
Mahan is on a roll in part due to a switch to a mallet putter, a new Ping Nome, that corrected a problem he had aiming left of the target with his previous blade putter.
Give NBC credit for catching a scene that showed how well Mahan and Wilson have played. The cameras showed Wilson and Mahan as they played some extra holes coming in, since Wilson hadn’t had a match go past the 16th hole all week, and Mahan hadn’t played any of the last three holes since the opening round.
Summary: Wilson is consistent and pesky and a good putter, so he’ll be hard to beat. But Mahan looks to be playing his absolute best, and on a roll with newfound confidence in his putter.
Lee Westwood vs. Rory McIlroy (9:20 a.m. EST)
Westwood looks slimmer and fitter than ever, and he seems to be playing like a man on a mission, not only to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the world but to give himself the best possible preparation to finally snag that elusive first major championship.
He had never made it to the third round in this event before this week, but that might have to do with not having his game in mid-season form in late February. When Scotland’s Martin Laird hit a bad stretch at the start of the back nine, Westwood put him away easily, 4 and 2.
McIlroy, meanwhile, shook off some serious jet lag, and he survived a shaky first-round match before playing some decent golf and dusting Miguel Angel Jimenez and Anders Hanson.
Saturday, he outlasted Sang-Moon Bae, who gave McIlroy a tough match on the front nine but then hit some loose shots on the back nine. McIlroy defeated him, 3 and 2.
Bae, a South Korean who led the Japan tour’s money list last year, had an impressive run and looks like he might be the class of last year’s Q-school graduates. McIlroy has had an impressive run lately. His only win in his previous nine starts was the Hong Kong Open, but he had seven top-five finishes in those starts. McIlroy has been very consistent, which is why he has a chance to unseat Luke Donald for the No. 1 ranking.
Summary: This will be a big showdown between two of the world’s top-ranked trio. “It’s the match that I wanted, and I think it’s the match everyone wanted,” McIlroy said. Neither player has lit it up on the funky greens of the Ritz-Carlton course, so it may come down to ballstriking.
Westwood has looked a little stronger than McIlroy, who looked better Saturday than in the three previous rounds, but don’t be surprised if this match comes down to one putt on an extra hole.
Sunday afternoon final: Hunter Mahan vs. Lee Westwood
Playing 36 holes in one day shouldn’t be a factor for these two since they’re both pretty fit. Mahan has not only played well tee-to-green for four days, he’s wielding a hot putter.
Summary: Westwood hasn’t been holing much outside 10 feet, although his short putting has been superb. Match play is all about making putts, and it looks like Mahan has the hotter hand.