The anticipated coronation of Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy as the world’s top-ranked golfer was denied in the Arizona desert Sunday by an American who cracked the Top 10 for the first time in his career.
It turned out to be Hunter Mahan’s day in the sun.
After the 22-year-old McIlroy overcame a slow start to defeat European rival Lee Westwood in the morning semifinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain resort near Tucson, Ariz., Mahan took an early lead in the afternoon final and never relinquished it in a 2-and-1 victory.
“Deep down, you wanted to postpone that crowning of the No. 1 player in the world for Rory,” Mahan said. “He’ll get there. I mean, he’s phenomenal. He’s really talented. He’ll be No. 1 eventually. But yeah, when you’re a player, and I listen to Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo and all those guys, they had him picked to win. And that’s what everybody was talking about. There was absolute motivation in that.”
Mahan’s second WGC championship catapulted him to ninth in the rankings. He started the Match Play event ranked 22nd. It also extended the America’s winning streak to eight in PGA events this season.
After eliminating fellow American Mark Wilson in the semifinals, also 2-and-1, Mahan took a 4-up lead over the stumbling, bumbling McIlroy midway through the finale. McIlroy didn’t win a hole until the 585-yard 11th and it was obvious by then that he wasn’t going to pull off back-to-back comebacks on this day.
McIlroy could have unseated Luke Donald at the top of the world rankings with a win .But Mahan never trailed in the championship match and played his last 74 holes without falling behind in a match. The last time he trailed was the third hole of his second round match with Y.E. Yang on Thursday.
Meanwhile, McIlroy looked flat in the championship match and fell too far behind to catch Mahan.
“To me, it was like my final in a way,” McIlroy said of his win over Westwood. “That was the one I wanted all week and I got. And that’s what I got myself up for. Yeah, maybe mentally and emotionally it did take a little bit out of me. But it still doesn’t take away from the fact that Hunter played very, very solid golf.
“Even though I threw a few birdies and an eagle at him in the back nine, he still responded well and held on.I think during the course of the week, he had played the best golf and deserved to win.”
McIlroy was deprived of becoming the second-youngest players in PGA history to be the No. 1 player in the world. Tiger Woods reached the top spot as a 21-year-old.
Mahan won four holes in a five-hole stretch starting with a 9-iron to 2 feet on the sixth hole, building a 4-up lead through 10 holes. McIlroy rallied on the back nine, but Mahan responded with two clutch birdies to stay in control.
Birdies were Mahan’s best friend during the five-day event. He had 35 birdies in 96 holes that covered six matches.
“It feels good because you’re going against the game’s best,” Mahan said. “I played well from tee-to-green, putting to chipping to driving, irons, everything was there. I needed everything to win. I’m very proud of how I played. It feels great. It really does.”
Mahan won for the fourth time in his career, two of them World Golf Championships. He also won the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in 2010. He joins Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy and Darren Clarke as the only players to win multiple WGC titles since these events began in 1999. Mahan is the first American to win the Match Play Championship since Woods in 2008.
Two shots were pivotal in the finale.
McIlroy won his first hole by chipping in for eagle from about 60 feet on the par-5 11th. Two holes later, McIlroy was safely in for birdie and Mahan had to get up-and-down from a bunker to avoid losing another hole. He blasted out to 6 feet and made the putt.
McIlroy birdied the 14th from 7 feet to cut the lead to 2 up, and on the 315-yard 15th, he hit driver to 30 feet for an eagle attempt. Mahan was short of the green, and elected to use his putter.
“I thought that was the best play,” Mahan said. “My touch with my putting has been pretty awesome this week. And at that time, where Rory is, I felt that gave me the best chance to make it.”
He nearly did, rolling it right on line, just short. McIlroy missed his putt and Mahan stayed 2 up.
It didn’t take rookie John Huh long to notch his first career PGA victory.
Playing his fifth PGA Tour event, Huh got into a playoff Sunday when Robert Allenby blew a two-stroke lead on the final hole of regulation, then finally finished off the 40-year-old Australian with a par on the eighth extra hole in the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.
Allenby went with driver off the 18th tee and drove into the trees on the right, leading to a double bogey and the playoff.
“Obviously, disappointed, disappointed that I didn’t like hit 3-wood off 18 in regulation, like I should have,” Allenby said. “But that’s the way it goes. You make some mistakes sometimes, and that was a major one, obviously.
“I mean, I had this tournament in the bag, a two-shot lead with one hole to play and just played it like a rookie, pretty much.”
The 21-year-old Huh closed with an 8-under 65 to match Allenby at 13-under 271 on the seaside El Camaleon course. Huh parred all eight holes in the playoff that matched the second-longest in PGA TOUR history.
“It’s amazing,” Huh said. “It’s my rookie year, especially, and playing in my fifth event on the PGA TOUR. I just couldn’t put it in words. … It’s really hard to explain this. It’s major. I mean, it was my dream.”
The playoff fell three holes short of the PGA TOUR record of 11 set in the 1949 Motor City Open when Caryu Middlecoff and Lloyd Mangrum were declared co-winners. The playoff was the fifth to go eight holes and first since the 1983 Phoenix Open.
The playoff alternated between the par-4 18th and par-3 10th.
It ended on No. 10 when Huh, seven strokes behind leader Daniel Summerhays after three rounds, chipped from the right rough to 2 feet and made his par putt. Allenby drove into the hazard on the right, chipped to 15 feet and missed his par try.
“I was nervous, especially when you’re playing out there against Robert Allenby,” Huh said. “I was trying to calm down myself, but it was hard.”
The victory followed two strong performances last month when Huh tied for sixth at Torrey Pines and tied for 12th the following week in the Phoenix Open.
Matt Every and Colt Knost shot 66 to tie for third, two strokes back.
Chris Stroud was a stroke back entering the final hole, but also made a double bogey for a 71 to drop into a tie for fifth at 10 under with Summerhays.
Huh eagled the par-5 fifth and had six birdies in his bogey-free final round.
“The wind was different than the past three rounds, so I was trying to take advantage of that,” Huh said.
Allenby was trying to win for the first time on the PGA TOUR since the 2001 Pennsylvania Classic, his fourth victory in a two-year span. He also won the Nedbank Challenge and Australian PGA in consecutive weeks late in 2009.
“I played so awesome all day,” Allenby said. “I mean, I did nothing wrong all day. I played great. I putted great. I hit the ball great. I did everything that I needed to do coming down the stretch and then to give it away at 18 is very, very disappointing.
“It wasn’t easy in the playoff as well. I struggled with my swing a little bit, but I was still mentally not quite there from the 18th hole anyway, but look, John’s a great player, and I played with him yesterday, and he’s got a great future and he’s a young guy, and you know, all the best to him.”
Angela Stanford refused to allow Mother Nature to rain on her parade, capturing the HSBC Women’s Champions title in a four-player, three-hole playoff in Singapore.
The 34-year-old sank a three-foot birdie putt on the third playoff hole to earn the distinction of the 2012 “Champion of Champions” title. Stanford outlasted Shanshan Feng, who three-putted the first playoff hole, Na Yeon Choi, who missed a four-footer for par on the second playoff hole, and Jenny Shin, who bogeyed the final playoff hole to post the second win by an American in the first three events of the LPGA season for the first time since 2007.
Stanford started off the week in convincing fashion, firing a tournament-low 6-under-par 66 to take a two-shot lead in the first round following six birdies, four coming on the front nine. She was near the top of the leader board the rest of the way.
“I haven’t won a major yet, so this is the closest thing so far,” said Stanford of her fifth career win. “The best players
in the world are here and they call it Asia’s major, so it’s the closest thing to me.”
As the leaders made the turn on Sunday at Tanah Merah Country Club, No. 1-ranked Yani Tseng seemed to be taking control. She birdied five of the first nine holes to tie Shin for the lead at 11-under-par with nine holes to play. But a double-bogey on 10, bogey on 14 missed birdie opportunities at the driveable par-4 16th derailed her. She lipped out for an eagle on No. 17 where she lipped out for eagle from the fairway and then missed a four-footer for birdie. The 23-year-old finished the week at 9-under-par, one shot behind the four players involved in the playoff.
Stanford handled the ups and downs of the final round and playoff holes like the 12-year Tour veteran she is, overcoming missed opportunities on the 18th hole in regulation and twice during the playoff before closing out the win. Her final round was highlighted by four birdies, two on both the front and back nine. She sat one shot behind Jenny Shin heading into the final hole of regulation before a weather delay suspended play for an hour and 34 minutes.
After returning to the 18th tee, Shin pulled her drive left, took relief and ended up with a double bogey, dropped to 10-under-par. Stanford made bogey to force the playoff with Choi and Feng.
The LPGA Tour returns to the U.S. for the RR Donnelly LPGA Founders Cup, which starts March 15 in Phoenix, Ariz.