Hunter Mahan's takedown of Rory McIlroy validated a format we Tour pros don't play enough

Hunter Mahan’s takedown of Rory McIlroy validated a format we Tour pros don’t play enough

Jonathan Byrd is a five-time PGA Tour winner and was Rookie of the Year in 2002.
Chris Carlson/AP

I just love the way Rory McIlroy plays, and for my money he's the best in the game right now. Still, watching the Rory-Hunter Mahan final on Sunday — on my couch at home, just like you — I was rooting for Hunter. I mean, come on. It's a Ryder Cup year!

Did Hunter play the best golf last week? That I don't know. I know what you know: He won the most matches. The Accenture Match Play Championship is a fantastic event, and I wish we played more tournaments with that format. But nothing will tell you who is playing best over a week like 72 holes of stroke play.

My buddy Zach Johnson, who lives down the street from me in Sea Island, played Hunter in the first round. Neither played that well, and they were tied after 18 holes. On the 19th Zach drove it into the desert and lost. Then Hunter won his next five matches, never having to play the 18th hole. That's how you win the Match Play. You win six consecutive matches. Doesn't matter how. That's what makes it so different and fun. Like Zach, I was a first-round loser. We commiserated by thoroughly revisiting our rounds. Zach knows all about my miscues in my 1-up loss to Matt Kuchar, another guy from Sea Island, same as I know of his against Hunter. Zach and I started our blow by blows — as Davis Love III, also of Sea Island, calls these recaps — in the player parking lot. Our BBBs continued over dinner, and on Thursday, when we flew home together. It's great to have a friend and a fellow Tour player to travel with. Who else is going to listen to this stuff?

Watching Hunter in the final, you could see how his confidence was growing and growing. Did you notice the way he started walking after some of his shots when his ball was in the air? You don't see that every day. I have that feeling sometimes, kind of playing on instinct, like a golfing animal. But I wish I had it more. I've won five times on Tour, but it seems like in big-time events — especially in the majors and these World Golf Championships — I try to be too perfect and get too mechanical and forget that I'm an athlete. Watching Hunter was a great reminder to me of the role that instinct, athleticism and confidence play in winning tournaments. I'd take off my flat-brim hat to him if I had one.

Rory has that same thing. I played against him last year in the first round of the Match Play, and he beat me 4 and 2. It was the only time I've played with him, and I was really impressed. Even if you know nothing about golf, you can tell that his swing is wonderful. It's his rhythm, his flexibility, his balance and most especially his speed through the ball. And then there's his walk, the strut in his step. His swagger. I like it. As his control of our match increased, so did his strut. And that's O.K. That's an athlete being an athlete. I play my best when I have that. When I got in from my match with Rory last year, I was so mad I went straight to the gym to work off the frustration. And about five minutes later, in came Rory. Impressive.

You can stage a match play event anywhere. Dove Mountain is an excellent course for Rory — and for Hunter and for me, too. Driving the ball long and in play is a central part of how Rory and Hunter play, and Dove Mountain has a lot of holes where, if you can carry a 290-yard bunker, you have a huge advantage over a guy who cannot. I hope I get back there next year. I think I can do some damage.

And don't get the impression I always lose in the first round. I don't — promise! In 2008, I beat Ernie Els 6 and 5 in the first round. When he won a par-5 with a 3, he walked off the green and said, "Can that count twice because I won with an eagle?" Everybody laughed. They say you can tell a lot about a person by the way he plays golf. Ernie was so gracious and good-humored. Not everybody would be.

At a Ryder Cup years ago, Tom Lehman said if we had match play every week we'd be as bad as tennis players. In other words, we'd be in each other's faces. Gentlemanly grace would be out the window. He's probably right. I know in match play I'm a lot more likely to think, I don't like this guy and I want to beat him bad. I don't say that with pride; I'm simply being truthful. It's human nature. The converse of that is it's not easy to play a friend in match play.

Tour playoffs are like match play events in miniature, and I've been in three of them. I won my first two. Then last year I lost to Lucas Glover, my Clemson teammate and another guy from Sea Island, at Wachovia. It's never easy playing a close friend.

Some of the guys treat the Match Play like it's an NCAA basketball pool and fill out their bracket predicting who's going to beat whom and draw themselves a path to the final. I don't do that. Last week I was in what we were calling the American bracket because, by coincidence, 10 of the 16 players in the Ben Hogan bracket were from the U.S. I did note that Tiger Woods was not in my bracket. I don't know how anybody could not note when he's around and what he's doing. His stature in the game is staggering. I'd be truly surprised if he doesn't win again this year.

When you're home and your buddies are still playing, you always want to see how they're doing. Like a lot of Tour players, I'll watch the telecast with the volume off. Or the kids will be making so much noise I can't hear the commentary anyway. On Sunday, I did hear one of the announcers say that Rory cut a driver on the 320-yard 15th hole. Now from what I've seen, Rory hits a baby draw with his driver like it's coming out of a machine. To suddenly switch gears and hit a fade when you're down in a match doesn't sound right to me. More likely, he hit his little draw into a slight left-to-right wind, and the breeze straightened the shot and made it fall to the right. But what do I know? I was 2,000 miles away, watching on a sofa.

I was really impressed with how Rory handled his postround interview. He was playing to win and to get the No. 1 World Ranking and to get the winner's $1.4 million check. And then he doesn't get the win, doesn't get the No. 1 ranking, doesn't get the winner's check. You're coming off that green, and you're hot, and now you have to answer questions live on TV. But it comes with the territory, and you could see how truly well-mannered he is. You could see the same thing from Rory at the Masters last year. Golf has always separated itself with that kind of behavior, and I hope it always will. Hunter was great in victory, as you'd expect. But grace in defeat is less easy. I'd take off my -tam-o'-shanter to you, Rory, if I had one.

There was one positive to my short week at the Match Play, aside from the fact that I was actually in the field. (I played one round of golf at Dove Mountain and earned $45,000. How lucky am I?) My abbreviated workweek gave me an extra three nights at home with my wife, Amanda, and our two young children, Jackson and Caroline. And we've got another one on the way, due just before the Masters. So I was glad to be able to help out a little around the house, make a Target run with Amanda, get the kids to their various preschool activities. Somebody tweeted that I should toilet paper Matt's house. I thought about it.

On the Monday morning after the Match Play, I got in my truck and drove to Augusta National for a two-day visit. A player's schedule always looks way better when he's in the Masters field.

As far as losing the 4th hole in my match with Kooch, when I drove it in the desert and a stick caused my ball to move in my backswing, costing me a shot, I can tell you all the gory details, if you really want to know them. Zach could give you his, too. But I'm getting over it. The Tour player is lucky. Every week is a fresh start. I'll see Zach and Kooch and Rory and Hunter next week at Doral.


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