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Matchplay is a test of Character

Matt Kuchar's win in Arixozona points to a steely determination

Posted Feb 26, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


The sight of Matt Kuchar sailing serenely towards victory over Hunter Mahan in the final of the Accenture Matchplay Championship on Sunday, brought to mind the words of an Irish golf writer of yesteryear. "A cool and sanguine spirit is one of the greatest assets of the top-class player,” wrote Arthur McWeeney of the Irish Independent. And it is a sentiment as valid now as it was 50 years ago.

In many respects, Kuchar is a golfing everyman in that he doesn’t seem to excel at any particular facet of the game.  For instance, PGA Tour statistics tell us he is currently ranked 167th in Driving Distance and 142nd in Driving Accuracy.  And in Total Putting, he is ranked 27th.  In fact the only statistic in which he could be considered outstanding is “Back-nine Scoring”, where he is ranked number one.

How much he could have benefited from this particular distinction in man-to-man combat over a fiendishly tricky layout in the wilds of Arizona, is difficult to assess, other than to indicate a strength of will in the heat of battle.  It was clear that Kuchar had no difficulty in accepting the vicissitudes of matchplay in unusually chilly, windy conditions.  Mind you, we could hardly have expected less from a player who captured the US Amateur Championship in 1997.

His progress in the Accenture also pointed to a liking for the event.  In his debut in 2010, when Ian Poulter captured the title, Kuchar managed only to reach the second round.  But he made very significant progress the following year when finishing third behind Luke Donald, and was also impressive 12 months ago in claiming a share of fifth place as a beaten quarter-finalist, when Mahan emerged victorious.   
The great Irish amateur, Joe Carr, who was inducted into golf’s Hall of Fame in 2007, had very clear views on the matchplay format.  "It's very easy to get caught over 18 holes," he said.  "A few missed putts and a few holed ones can turn a match.  In my view that's why Walker Cup matches are much closer these days than they once were when matches were played over 36 holes, and why the British and Irish players seem to be doing far better than was the case in my day.  It's down to the length of the matches and for that reason, I would hate to see a return to the 36-hole format."        

Carr also acknowledged that strokeplay was a more searching test of golf.  But he insisted that “matchplay is a better test of character.”  And he was honest enough to admit that there were occasions when he found it impossible to ascend the first tee with a clear sense of optimism. "I felt really up against it when I played Jack Nicklaus," he admitted.  "I figured that with a quick start, I might have a chance of getting him over 18 holes, but I found it impossible to convince myself that I could beat the best golfer in the world over 36 holes in the Walker Cup.  His reputation was enough."

Generally, in man-to-man combat, the most important thing as far as Carr was concerned, was to make sure that he stood where his opponent could see him, whatever the circumstances. He wanted the man to know he was there, that he wouldn't miraculously disappear, no matter how desirable that might be in a difficult match.

You could see this attitude in Tiger Woods at the peak of his powers.  And in Poulter, when strutting his stuff in the Accenture of 2010 and even more impressively as Europe’s inspiration in the Ryder Cup at Medinah.  Having first got the taste of professional matchplay as a beaten semi-finalist behind Adam Scott at La Costa in 2005, he clearly liked it, judging from his impact on the event since then.

While accepting Carr’s argument about the often unpredictable nature of 18-hole matchplay, the recent dominance of players such as Woods, Mahan and Poulter would suggest that the right mental attitude can still make good things happen.  It was clearly missing from the performances of leading players who made disappointingly early exits in Tucson last week, but was most definitely present in the steady, unruffled progress of Kuchar.

Experience tells us that a match can turn on the odd, fortunate putt or lucky bounce of the ball.  The determination of an individual not to be undone by fickle fate, however, can overcome such setbacks.  As a genial Georgian with a ready smile, proved on Dove Mountain.   

- Dermot Gilleece

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