MARANA, Ariz. — Even as Hunter Mahan motored his way through the Match Play Championship by beating one tough opponent after another, he had reason to feel he was just along for the ride in the final match Sunday afternoon.
All the chatter was about U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and his march to No. 1 in the world. All the chants Mahan heard as he walked down the first two holes at Dove Mountain were for McIlroy.
With a little extra motivation he didn’t need, Mahan won three consecutive holes on the front nine to seize control and answered McIlroy’s charge with birdies of his own for 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.”
It proved to be too long of a day for McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, who put so much energy into a high-stakes semifinal match against Lee Westwood earlier Sunday. If either of them won the tournament, they would go to No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy, explosive as ever, ran off seven birdies in a 10-hole stretch to overcome an early deficit and beat Westwood. He looked flat in the championship match, made a series of mistakes to lose back-to-back holes, 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.”
The six guys Mahan had to beat at Dove Mountain were Zach Johnson, Y.E. Yang, Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar, Mark Wilson and McIlroy. Three of them have won majors. Five of them have made Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup teams. The exception was his semifinal match against Wilson, who has won three times on the PGA Tour in the past 14 months.