Match Play down to its last four
MARANA, Ariz. -- Ian Poulter is 19-3-2 over the past four years in worldwide match-play competition. The 37-year-old Englishman was the star of the victorious European Ryder Cup team at Medinah.
In his four wins this week at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, none of his matches made it to 18 holes.
Poulter will face Mahan, the defending champion. After his 1 up win over Webb Simpson on Saturday, Mahan now has won 10 consecutive matches in this event.
Kuchar goes up against Day. In 2011, Kuchar lost in the semifinals 6 and 5 to Luke Donald. Last year, Kuchar ran into the Mahan buzz saw in the quarterfinals.
After four days of the ups and downs of this format, these players all are confident with their games and mental toughness. Each expects to win out and take the $1.5 million first prize.
Poulter could have spoken for them all when he was asked how much confidence he had after his 3 and 2 quarterfinal win over Steve Stricker.
"A lot of it," he said.
At the beginning of the week, few people probably predicted this final four. A couple of players with the swoosh on their shirts figured to make up half of this group. But match play doesn't buckle to marketing or world rankings.
"I know it's not the top four in the world, probably what everyone was hoping for, but there's been a lot of great golf played, a lot of great shots, a lot of great putts," Mahan said. "There's a lot of great players.
"Over a normal tournament, things get weeded out and the top players seem to rise, but in one round, golf is golf. You never know who can get hot."
The outcomes of the remaining matches are unpredictable, particularly at this last stage in the tournament, but the best player of the week will emerge Sunday.
Mahan will beat Poulter because he will carry a chip on his shoulder. After he won here last year, few could have imagined he wouldn't make the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Medinah in September.
Over the past several days, as he made his way through the rounds, it was easy to wonder what would have happened had Davis Love III picked him for that team.
Facing Poulter, the emotional leader of the European squad, will embolden Mahan to try harder to win his second consecutive title at Dove Mountain.
"I think the greatest challenge with him is just staying in my own game and just playing, not ... playing at his speed or anything because if he starts playing well, he's going to play fast and gets his head up and his shoulders back and starts motoring down the fairway," Mahan said. "I just need to hit quality shots and put pressure on him that way."
Yet it's too bad Poulter will have to play Mahan. Because these are probably the best two players of the format left in the field, even though Kuchar is a former U.S. Amateur champion with an excellent record in this event.
Kuchar is due to make it to the finals after appearances in the quarters and the semis. The friendly assassin with the toothy grin and easy-going demeanor will make Day beat him with birdies.
"I think my game is just a steady game," Kuchar said. "I'm going to try to never give a guy a hole, and I think that's a big key in match play, just not giving holes away. If there's any strength to my game, I think that would be it."
WGC-ACCENTURE MATCH PLAY
• Defending champion: Hunter Mahan
• Bracket picks: Collins | Evans | Harig | Maguire | Ray | Updated bracket
• Tee times, leaderboard
• Venue: The Golf Club at Dove Mountain; par-72, 7,791 yards
• Location: Marana, Ariz.
• TV coverage: Sun., 9 a.m.-1 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and 2-6 p.m. ET, NBC
• Dates: Wednesday-Sunday
• Payout: 64-man field with winner earning $1.5 million of $8.75 million purse
• Format: Match-play event with field being cut in half after each round
• Quick links: Money leaders | Schedule | World rankings
• Follow @ESPNGolf on Twitter
"Long hitters are at an advantage on this golf course, but I have become very comfortable playing with them and not worrying about it," Kuchar said.
"I play most of my practice rounds with Gary Woodland. So I have learned how to not be worried about a guy hitting 30 to 40 yards by me. So that's been helpful."
Expect Kuchar to beat Mahan in the finals by playing his game. The 34-year-old former Georgia Tech star knows there is no defense in golf, so he'll concentrate on his ball.
A good tennis player, Kuchar used that sport Saturday to explain his approach to match play.
"I know that with tennis players, it's head to head, they're there to strictly beat the opponent," Kuchar said. "But you're not returning the opponent's shots ever. I still feel like match play, you still have to play the course. ... You're not ever having an opponent blow one by you.
"I still feel like golfers would still play the golf course, still strategize a little bit trying to play according to the shot their opponent has hit."
These four players know this approach. By now they know what they need to do to win a match. They might even know all their opponents' strengths and weaknesses, but this is a new moment, another occasion to solve the mysteries of match play.