Sutherland scrapes way past top-ranked golfers to win

Match Play sees new name at top

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Kevin Sutherland never had much reason to believe he would win the first World Golf Championship of the year.

He barely qualified as the No. 62 seed. Five long days ago, he was 2-down with two holes to play against David Duval when he somehow managed to get past the first round.

And in the biggest match of his life, his driving was so erratic that he never knew where the ball was headed, only that the grass beneath it was going to be thick.

''All day long, I'm in total survival mode, just trying to get to the next hole and not hurt anybody while I'm doing it,'' Sutherland said.

His amazing journey reached an unlikely destination Sunday when Sutherland missed yet another fairway, saved yet another par and claimed the Match Play Championship with a 1-up victory over childhood friend Scott McCarron.

''It's phenomenal,'' he said. ''Next to winning a major, the World Golf Championship events are right there. This has 64 of the best players in the world. It makes it even more special to beat some of the best.''

It was a bitter loss for McCarron, whose long-handled putter failed him for the second week in a row. Needing an 8-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole to extend the match, the ball caught the left lip and McCarron turned away in shock.

''I felt like I played a lot better and I should have won,'' said McCarron, who never trailed until missing a 6-foot par putt on the 33rd hole. ''He was a buzz saw out there. He was an absolute rock marking pars.''

They embraced on the 18th green, two guys born a year apart in Sacramento who have played with each other at every level. Their last match was 20 years ago in the San Joaquin Sectionals in high school, which Sutherland won with a string of birdies on the back nine.

Par did the trick on another gorgeous day in north San Diego County.

Sutherland holed a 5-footer on the par-3 14th to even the match, another 5-footer for par on the 15th hole to take his first lead of the day, and another on No. 16, getting up-and-down from the bunker and staying ahead when McCarron missed a birdie from 12 feet.

''All of a sudden I was leading,'' Sutherland said. ''I'm like, 'Wow! I've got a really good chance here.'''

He took advantage in typical fashion -- missing fairways, making pars.

It looked like the match would go extra holes when Sutherland missed his 18th fairway of the 36-hole match and put his approach into the bunker. He blasted out to within a foot for his 30th par of the day.

A week ago, McCarron missed 6-foot putts on the each of the final three holes to finish one stroke behind at the Nissan Open. This was just as bitter.

The only consolation was seeing his friend hold up the trophy and pick up $1 million, the first player to make a WGC event his first career victory.

''He just put himself on the map,'' McCarron said. ''We all know on tour he was a great player for the last couple of years, but the world didn't know it yet. Now they do.''

The world was expecting Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Duval or another top-ranked player, even though the highest-seed to win this event was Darren Clarke (No. 19). They were all beaten in the first round, and the other top seeds followed.

That left Sutherland and McCarron, not exactly two household names in the world golf but the best players with the best run of luck on this week.

''I always knew I could win,'' Sutherland said. ''Now I know I can win.''

McCarron earned $550,000 in his first WGC event.

Brad Faxon won the consolation match and $450,000 when Paul Azinger bogeyed the 18th hole, then made bogey on the first extra hole. Azinger earned $360,000.

Sutherland had trailed in only 11 out of 86 holes going into the final round, but found himself behind throughout most of 36-hole final. The lasting image of this Match Play champion was hitting out of the rough, and looking under trees to see where it went.

''I almost gave up on the fact I was ever going to hit a fairway,'' he said. ''It was like, which side would be better? What rough would be better to be in?''

As always, the putter proved to be the best weapon in match play.

Even with $1 million on the line, it looked like a couple of friends playing a friendly match. The banter was light and easy, typical of two guys who have played golf with each other longer than they can remember.

Sutherland fought his swing early on, missing eight consecutive fairways.

After he pulled his drive into the rough on No. 13, McCarron said to him, ''Are you ever going to hit a fairway?'' He playfully slugged Sutherland in the arm, and both players started laughing.

''I know we played a match in high school,'' Sutherland replied. ''I feel like I'm still in high school right now.''

Through all the small talk, the match was close from start to finish.

Even though Sutherland trailed throughout the morning round, he never went more than two holes before squaring the match, and it was tied after the first 18 holes.

The match turned on the par-5 ninth hole in the afternoon, when McCarron split the middle and was positioned to go for the green. Sutherland went right behind a tree, then hooked it around the tree, down a cart path and behind a smaller tree.

He hit a low weged to 5 feet for birdie. McCarron missed the green left, chipped to 12 feet and two-putted for par.

''Instead of falling out of touch with Scott, I'm right back in the tournament.''

That's how it went the rest of the round -- every time Sutherland looked to be in trouble, he managed to halve the hole.

When it was over, he was the champion no one could have predicted.

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