Even as Hunter Mahan motored his way through the WGC-Accenture 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.
WGC-ACCENTURE MATCH PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP
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 straight 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.
"Even though I threw a few birdies and an eagle at him in the back nine, he still responded well and held on," he said. "I think during the course of the week, he had played the best golf and deserved to win."
Mahan can easily make a case for that.
The six guys he 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 last 14 months.
It required his best golf, and Mahan delivered with 35 birdies in 96 holes over 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 Tiger 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.
And he was the first American to win the Accenture Match Play since Woods in 2008. He moves to No. 9 in the world, the first time in his career that Mahan has cracked the top 10.
Luke Donald stays at No. 1, though McIlroy is closing in quickly. McIlroy, who rejoined the PGA Tour this year, plays the Honda Classic next week against a strong field, and then has another WGC at Doral.
He never led in the championship match against Mahan, losing an opportunity on the opening hole when he missed a 4-foot par putt. Mahan took the lead with a 9-iron into 2 feet for a conceded birdie on the par-3 sixth.
On the seventh hole, with Mahan already in trouble in a deep collection area left of the green, McIlroy pulled his short iron and joined him there. But it took McIlroy two chips to get on the green, and he lost the hole with a double bogey.
Then McIlroy's sand wedge hopped over the green on the par-5 eighth and he lost that hole with a bogey.
Mahan's big lead was enough to withstand the McIlroy charge. McIlroy played the opening six holes on the back nine in 5 under par, but still picked up only one hole on Mahan.
"I tried to claw myself back, but I left myself too much work," McIlroy said.
He also got off to a slow start against Westwood, 3 down through four holes, before roaring past him. McIlroy didn't have the shots, and didn't appear to have the energy, to do that twice in one day.
That was always his concern. There was so much anticipation about his semifinal match with Westwood.
"Maybe the intensity wasn't quite as much as it was this morning going out," McIlroy said. "I think that's a little understandable after going through a match like that, thinking about it all last night and this morning."
"I don't think I'd do anything differently," he said. "Because if I didn't play with the same intensity in the morning, I might not have been in the finals."
The last time Mahan was in a pressure situation against a player from Northern Ireland was in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, when U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole of the decisive match.
Even so, the memories of that match are Mahan duffing a chip on the last hole, though McDowell was likely to win the match, anyway. Mahan has worked hard on his chipping, and he feels it carried him this week.
Two shots were pivotal.
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.
Club selection was never in doubt.
"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.
McIlroy looked like the world's best player, but only on Sunday morning.
In the most anticipated match of the week, Westwood birdied two holes and won another when McIlroy missed a 5-footer for par to build a 3-up lead through four holes. As quickly as Westwood took the lead, he lost it.
McIlroy was simply sensational.
With the trophy on the line, however, he didn't have enough left for Mahan.