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Mahan Ready to Defend Match Play Title
It wasn't a total surprise last year when Hunter Mahan won the 2012 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. After all, he'd won three times in his career, including his first World Golf Championship title at the Bridgestone Invitational a year and a half earlier.
But perhaps it was who the Southern California native beat that got the golf world's attention. After getting past Lee Westwood in the semifinals, Mahan vanquished future No. 1 Rory McIlroy in a tight 36-hole championship match, 2 and 1, and became only the second player since Tiger Woods to win two WGC events while still in his 20s.
Thus began a fine early part of the season for Mahan, who won again a little over a month later at the Shell Houston Open. After such an auspicious start, many thought Mahan was emerging as one of the world's elite players.
But it was not to be as his best finish the rest of 2012 was a T-8 in the season-ending Tour Championship. Worse, he wasn't selected by Davis Love III as one of the four wild-card picks for the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
"Well, it was difficult getting the call from Davis," Mahan said at the time. "But I didn't play my best golf at the time of the pick. I was hoping my previous track record beforehand, having won two tournaments, would get me in," Mahan said.
"It's something you work for for two years and it stinks not to have made it," added Mahan, a member of both the victorious 2008 and losing '10 U.S. squads and a member on three winning Presidents Cup teams. "It was a kick in the teeth, because I really wanted to redeem myself. But at the end of the day, I know I had only one person to blame and that was me."
Now 30, Mahan seems primed for another run in the Match Play Championship, which starts Wednesday with the world's best 64 best players competing at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz. Seeded sixth in the Gary Player bracket, Mahan will face 19-year-old Italian phenom Matteo Manassero in the first round.
Mahan is currently playing well, with four top-25 finishes in five starts this season. He rose into contention in the final round at last week's Northern Trust Open after carding seven birdies - and two bogeys - through 15 holes. But he bogeyed the final two holes for a 69, settling for a tie for eighth at 8-under 276, three strokes behind John Merrick and Charlie Beljan (Merrick eventually won on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff hole).
On Monday, Mahan met with reporters and discussed his rollercoaster 2012 season. He also talked about his chances to repeat this week in the Match Play Championship. Here's what he told the media.
MODERATOR: We'd like to welcome Hunter Mahan, defending champion of the Accenture Match Play World Golf Championships. Thanks for joining us, coming off a top 10 last week at Riviera. Just some thoughts on being back here and defending your title.
HUNTER MAHAN: Yeah, it feels good coming into here. I feel like I'm playing pretty well, so this is definitely a tournament about momentum. So if I could get off to a good start here and build some momentum, hopefully that will lead to some success. But I feel of this caliber, every match is going to be a challenge. Going to have to work hard this week and hopefully play my best to kind of have the same success at last year.
Q. You defended a number of titles, but not one such as this in the Match Play event. Do you come in with a different mindset at all?
HUNTER MAHAN: No, you come in trying to play well and get into good shape for Wednesday. You've got to be aggressive from the first tee and be aggressive, try to hit a lot of good quality shots but try to put pressure on your opponent. But when it comes down to it, you just want to beat the guy in front of you, you don't have to beat the whole field. Whatever score that is that you have to shoot that day, that's what you have to shoot.
Q. Is there anything about this course that lent itself to you playing well here last year, or were you just on a hot streak and playing real well that week?
HUNTER MAHAN: Yeah, well, I played just great golf for one. I mean, from just the putter to the driver to every part of my game was on. This is a course where I feel like you've got to obviously hit the ball in play, so the desert is not the golf course. So there's not as much rough as there is desert, so if you hit the ball you might be okay. But playing out of the desert, there could be a lot of lost balls or lies that you're not going to be able to really make anything out of. I put the ball in play a lot and I hit a lot of greens, so I think that could help me. But in the end it's all about making birdies and making a few putts, and I was able to do that last year.
Q. Did you learn anything here last year about being successful in match play?
HUNTER MAHAN: Yes. You have to play good. That's the only thing that matters. There's no sort of lucky charm or anything like that. I mean, it's just playing each shot individually as its own little tournament and try to hit the best one you can.
Q. There's projections for some inclement weather on Wednesday. Is that anything that affects the way you go about preparing for the course or anything like that, and does it affect everybody the same or does it affect a certain kind of golfer differently?
HUNTER MAHAN: I don't think it affects anyone any differently, unless you think it does. If you don't like the cold and you don't want to be out there, then it's going to affect you. It's just this is a tournament where it really doesn't matter. If it's better in the morning or afternoon, it doesn't matter. There's not going to be a lucky set of tee times here this week. You're just trying to beat the guy in front of you, whether that's with a 68 or a 78 it really doesn't matter. The weather plays really, I don't think, any significance except in your mind.
Q. Everybody talks so much about momentum, and you know from last year and building that momentum, particularly when you start, can you talk about the opposite end of that, how quickly that momentum can stop, particularly in the match-play format?
HUNTER MAHAN: Yeah, it stops when you think it stops, I guess. I mean, I think the only thing you do out here is put the ball in play and hit a lot of greens and give yourself opportunities. You know, first match last year I didn't play great and was lucky to get a win versus Zach, and from there I started playing better. But this is kind of a fickle thing. You can be playing great and playing as good as anybody coming in here and lose the first round because somebody got hot that day and played better than you. You have to just - I think the most important thing is step on the first tee and be ready to play and be excited to get into it because it's easy to be a couple down if you're not quite into the match the way you need to be.
This isn't like a tournament where you're starting the first day and you're just maybe getting a sense of the golf course and a feeling for it and just playing golf. You've got to be aggressive immediately, and you have to be willing to make aggressive swings and put the ball into play and attack pins. This isn't really a place to sit back and let your opponent make a mistake. That's when you're going to lose.
Q. When it comes to defending titles, how tough do you think this tournament is to defend?
HUNTER MAHAN: Well, I mean, there's no - I remember reading a Sports Illustrated article and Nick Saban said there's no continuum for success, and there's no - that's the best analogy for golf, I think, because last year has nothing to do with this year. The road will be just as hard as last year. There's no defending here, it's just trying to win this week and trying to beat the guys that are going to play in front of you, and that's going to be a tough challenge. Like I said, the score is kind of irrelevant, it's just winning this week.
Q. How difficult is it coming from the adjustment of poa and kikuyu at Riviera last year to the grasses you'll face this week?
HUNTER MAHAN: It's not a difficult adjustment because it will be a lot easier. It's difficult to play out of the poa annua. We've got the ocean effect from last year, and the way the course drains. It's a lot of feel. You read a putt, but then you also have to feel it in there. You have to kind of almost guess or have that good speed and everything, and here it's a little bit - it's just easier to kind of read the greens, I think. The grass is so perfectly manicured, it's just good ol' bent. It's a lot easier to judge. I felt like last week it's difficult to judge out of the kikuyu and judge the bounce when it hits the green and how much it's going to roll. I think it's easier to kind of judge things here.
Q. I think I remember you saying last year you never even left the property here the entire week. That approach obviously worked. How did that help you to stay here and stay within the confines of this area? Anything to that?
HUNTER MAHAN: Well, this is just my fifth week in a row, so energy is important. And just taking it easy and not expending too much energy ongoing anywhere or doing anything is kind of a key this week, I think, for me, just putting all that energy I can into preparing for the week and resting afterwards and getting into the rounds as best I can. This is incredible, the Ritz is an incredible facility, the golf course here is an incredible facility. They have everything that we need, and it's a great place to kind of relax hopefully for a week and enjoy yourself.
Q. With you winning here this specific event last year, did that come with any extra notoriety afterwards?
HUNTER MAHAN: A little bit. Every time you win a tournament I think people recognize you more. You know, especially being a WGC, this is one of the bigger tournaments we play all year. It happens a little bit. But on a pretty - you know, not a huge scale or anything.
Q. As the defending champion is there anyone in this year's field that you're interested to see how they play or have a handicap for how this thing might play out?
HUNTER MAHAN: No, not really. I mean, I looked at the bracket very briefly. I saw a couple really good matches. I think it's neat to see the European players come over here and play because a lot of you guys and myself, we don't see them a lot. I know a couple guys that are extremely good players that are playing, and they're playing good Americans that we all know. I think there's always just a lot of interesting matches here. My college partner, Alex Noren, is playing here this week. He has Dustin Johnson, I think. And that'll be a good match because I know the way Alex plays. He plays very fearlessly and he has no give up in him. He has a straight attitude. So I think that'll be a great match. But those are always the fun matches, when you see two guys play together that just - they never see each other.
Q. Who are the best three match-play guys in the field this week?
HUNTER MAHAN: Poulter, I think Tiger is a great match play player, and probably Luke Donald.
Q. You just bashed 61 guys.
HUNTER MAHAN: That's all right. Can't make everyone happy.
Q. Why do you say that? Not any particular name, but about those three, what stands out about their reputation?
HUNTER MAHAN: Well, Luke is just the ultimate match play player because he's a guy that's going to - can easily chip in from anywhere, change the kind of momentum of a match. He's a great putter. There's just not a putt or chip that he can't make. So no matter where he is, he's never going to be really out of a hole. Poults just has a will about him that makes him a good player. I think his will is probably the strongest on Tour. And then Tiger is just a great player in general, and he just doesn't like to lose. That's always a great motivator.
Q. Who would you like to sit next to in the locker room after a first round loss?
HUNTER MAHAN: Gosh. I don't know who's in the field. I like to sit next to Pat Perez because I like to know what he's going to say. I don't know if he's in the field or not. Gosh, I don't know. I wish I could see the field. I'll have to get back to you on that one. That's a good one, though. I like it.
Q. In kind of another vein, you've had a lot of failure in your life just like everyone else in this field. How does some of kind of the crushing moments you've had compare with a first round loss here, the immediate - right after it's over?
HUNTER MAHAN: Yeah. Well, the great thing is golf is all about failure. We fail every day, so we're used to that. But golf is also about picking yourself up. That's what golf is about, picking yourself up after a defeat or a failure or whatever you call it, disappointment. So that's what it always - that's what makes the great players great because they never fall that far, they just get up and start going again. Yeah, it stings so bad here when you lose the first round. I know I've lost in the first round, and it just feels so deflating. You get ready, get primed up for this week, and then it's over and you have to go home, and you realize Thursday there's so much more golf to be playing and you're not playing, so it really stinks.
Q. Do you remember who you lost to in the first round?
HUNTER MAHAN: I want to say I lost to Schwartzel. I'm pretty sure. I think he was my only first round loss, but I'm not sure.
Q. When you get in the van to come in, what's that line?
HUNTER MAHAN: It can't get there fast enough. Whenever I play an event, after it's over then the one thing you want to do is leave that event as soon as possible. If you could tele transport yourself out of there, you would, to anywhere, because you just don't want to be there anymore, unless you win, then you don't have a problem signing anything that anyone wants you to sign. But it's a weird feeling. You just want to get out of there. The van can't move fast enough. People can't get out of the way fast enough. Everything bothers you. And if someone asks you how was your day, you want to punch them in the face. This is where I would like to talk to about Pat Perez because he probably does all the things I think about. That's just how you feel. It goes over quickly. It's golf at the end of the day. I mean, it's just - it is what it is. It's part of the game.
MODERATOR: Hunter, we appreciate your time, and best of luck this week.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.