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A fickle format that produces the right winner

Monday - 2/25/2013, 11:38pm  ET

Matt Kuchar kisses the Walter Hagen Cup after defeating Hunter Mahan 2 and 1 in the final round of play during the Match Play Championship golf tournament, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, in Marana, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer

MARANA, Ariz. (AP) -- For such a fickle format, the Match Play Championship sure does seem to produce the right winner.

Matt Kuchar had reason to pack a full suitcase for the high desert of Arizona based on his record in this tournament. He is the only player to reach the quarterfinals each of the last three years, and he wound up losing to the eventual champion the previous two times.

Sunday he went the distance to capture his first World Golf Championship.

Kuchar became only the second player in the 15-year history of the Match Play to win without ever seeing the 18th hole except in a practice round, or when the courtesy van ferrying him in after winning a match drove past the closing hole on the way to the clubhouse.

He played 96 holes in six rounds and only trailed after four of them.

He built a 4-up lead over Hunter Mahan in the championship match and held off a fierce rally on the back nine at Dove Mountain to close him out, 2 and 1, and add his name to an impressive list of winners.

"Match play I find to be such an amazing, unique format, so much fun to play and so much pressure," Kuchar said. "It seems like each hole there's so much momentum riding and so much pressure on every hole. To come out on top after six matches of playing the top 64 guys in the world, it's an incredible feeling."

One reason the PGA Championship abandoned match play in 1958 was that the field was cut in half after each round, giving the crowd fewer players to watch. And it was miserable for television when the biggest stars were eliminated.

That much hasn't changed.

Tiger Woods left on Thursday for the second year in a row, and the only reason he lasted that long was because of a snowstorm on Wednesday. He lost in the first round, as did Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world. By the weekend, the highest seed remaining was Masters champion Bubba Watson.

But a closer look will show that this tournament is won by some of the best in match play.

Kuchar's record improved to 15-3.

His last win came at the expense of Mahan, who had won 11 straight matches in this event -- 12 overall dating to his singles win in the 2011 Presidents Cup -- and had a staggering streak of 169 holes without trailing.

The previous four winners were Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Geoff Ogilvy and Woods, all of them considered the best in the head-to-head game that many believe to be the purest form of golf.

Donald has a 17-8 record in this tournament alone, which doesn't speak to his prowess in the Ryder Cup. Poulter had a 19-3-2 record in match play worldwide the last three years, though he wound up losing twice in one day on Sunday -- to Mahan in the semifinals, and to Jason Day in a consolation match.

Ogilvy was disheartened at failing to qualify this year, and it's easy to see why. He has a 20-5 record at the Match Play, with two wins and three trips to the championship match. Ogilvy has never lost in singles in the Presidents Cup, with two of those wins over Steve Stricker.

Woods, of course, needs no introduction when it comes to Match Play. He won six straight USGA titles as an amateur, and even with a recent slump at Dove Mountain -- he has failed to get out of the second round since he won in 2008 -- his overall record in this format as a pro is 48-15-2.

Mahan had to take down Poulter in the semifinal, and it was no picnic. Mahan twice hit tough chips to within 6 feet to win a hole, and he chipped in from 70 feet behind the 12th green to grab a 3-up lead and coast in against the Englishman, who was off his game in that match. As tough as Poulter is in match play, Mahan knew that Kuchar would be just as difficult in his own way.

"It was definitely a different vibe, for sure," Mahan said. "Kooch and I had more conversation on the first hole than I did with Poulter all day. But that's the difference between the two guys. There's nothing wrong with it either way. Poults is very steely out there. He motivates himself in a different way than Kooch does."

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