Match Play marks seismic shift in power from U.S. to European golf

Match Play marks seismic shift in power from U.S. to European golf

Luke Donald beat Martin Kaymer 3 and 2 to win the Accenture Match Play.
Robert Beck/SI

MARANA, Ariz. — The Dude beat the Snood.

Martin Kaymer’s adventurous neckware was no match for Luke Donald’s steely cool at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship final on Sunday.

Donald was simply unstoppable at this tournament. His final-round, 3-and-2 victory over Kaymer took him to No. 3 in the world and increased the health of his bank balance by $1.4 million. The consolation prize for Kaymer: the No. 1 ranking and a runner-up prize of $850,000.

“It feels amazing,” Donald said. “I had a monkey on my back not having won in America for five years. There has been a lot of sweat and tears to get here. Hats off to Martin for getting to No. 1. It makes this win a little sweeter.”

It was an especially sweet day for European golf. The Donald-Kaymer match was the fifth Match Play Championship final in six years not to feature an American. And with Donald’s ascension to No. 3, Europeans now occupy the top four places in the world rankings for the first time since 1992, when the Big Four were Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Seve Ballesteros. The Class of 2011 is an impressive roster as well: Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Donald and Graeme McDowell.

“To hear I am world No. 3 means a lot,” Donald said. “This is a purple patch for European golf.”

PGA Tour chief Tim Finchem was waiting to greet the European finalists on the first tee. He did his best to put on a brave face. “If only I had a nickel for everyone that googled ‘snood’,” Finchem whispered in reference to Kaymer’s fly-fishing scarf. He may just need every nickel and dime if top players like Kaymer, Westwood and Rory McIlroy continue to opt out of the PGA Tour.

The Match Play Championship final always feels like an Old West duel, so it was appropriate that just after High Noon on Sunday the European Ryder Cup sharpshooters moseyed from the practice green to face off.

Every great Western has a man in black, and the affable, easy-going Donald obliged with his outfit. Kaymer, who has won four of his last nine events, wore a purple sweater.

“Number one!” came a yell from the bleacher on Sunday. That fan wasn’t making a prediction, just stating a fact. By defeating Bubba Watson in the semifinal on Saturday, Kaymer became only the second German to reach the summit of the game, following boyhood hero Bernhard Langer, who was the very first No. 1 when the rankings began in 1986.

Kaymer ended Lee Westwood’s 17-week reign at the top. Anyone remember Tiger Woods? He has dropped to No. 5, his lowest ranking since the week before he won the 1997 Masters.

When Kaymer woke up for the first time as the No. 1 player on Sunday, he was greeted by a blanket of snow covering the Arizona desert. The snow was gone before the final match started, but the unseasonably cold weather continued throughout the round. At one point, golf-ball-sized hailstones rained down on Kaymer and Donald, stopping play on the fourth hole. It was so cold that Kaymer pulled his snood over his mouth and nose. He looked like he was about to rob the Tucson mail wagon.

But it was Donald who would ride off into the sunset with the loot. The Englishman ambled down the fairways with his hands stuffed inside his pockets, keeping them warm with those magic, heated tea-bag things that everyone in Scotland has.

Donald’s extraordinary run of 27 birdies in 73 holes to reach the final continued at the second when he rolled in a 12-footer to take an early lead. Two more birdies followed. Down three after five holes, Kaymer looked to be going the way of Donald’s five earlier victims this week: Charley Hoffman, Edoardo Molinari, Matteo Manassero, Ryan Moore and Matt Kuchar.

But Kaymer has climbed to No. 1 with grit, consistency, a phenomenal fighting spirit, strength of mind and patience. He clawed back three holes to tie the match going into the back nine, but he couldn’t keep up the pressure as the temperature dropped but his putts did not. Donald, who has a Ryder Cup record of 8-2-1, showed some grit of his own.

“I was a little shaky in the middle of the round, but made a crucial birdie at 11 and kept reminding myself that I had never been behind in any match all week,” Donald said.

Donald finished off Kaymer with five birdies in the final match, bringing his weekly tally to 32 birdies in 89 holes. Kaymer had no answer to the relentless Donald, but neither did anyone else. Donald saw the 18th green once all week — in a practice round on Tuesday.

“Luke is the best in the world in the short game,” Kaymer said. “I’ve played with Phil Mickelson a few times and he is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke. Wherever he is, you know he will make the up-and-down — if he doesn’t hole it.”