My Five: Best Match Players

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My Five: Best Match Players

February 23, 2011

Photo By: AP Photo

Photo By: AP Photo/CLH

Photo By: AP Photo

Photo By: Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Photo By: Robin Loznak/AP Photo

Walter HagenThe Haig was the perfect match player in terms of a scrambling style, unflappable attitude and ability in the clutch. He won the PGA Championship at match play five times, including four consecutive from 1924 to 1927, which comprised 22 straight matches. He also won the unofficial "Championship of the World" challenge match, played at 72 holes, four times, beating Jones 12 and 11 in 1926 and Gene Sarazen 9 and 8 in 1927. In the Ryder Cup, he was 7-1-1. Hagen wasn't always a tidy ball striker, but he was nearly always a fantastic putter. His mantra was "three of those and one of them still count four," which, when put into practice, Jones admitted "get's my goat."

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Byron NelsonVastly underrated as a match player, Nelson won two PGA Championships, but his three finals losses came on the 36th, 37th and 38th holes. Nelson's career record in the championship was 37-8, giving him the highest winning percentage of any player. Nelson also gets extra credit for defeating Ben Hogan in their 18-hole playoff for the 1942 Masters. Although never a gifted putter, Nelson wore opponents down with mistake-free, tee-to-green golf that led the USGA to name its test machine "Iron Byron." Nelson was more steeled than he is given credit for. He flatly denied the widely accepted theory that he retired early due to a chronically nervous stomach. He also said, "The Lord hates a coward."

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Gene SarazenA fire hydrant of a man at 5-5, Sarazen was a superb shot maker and tenacious competitor. He won his first of three PGA Championships in 1922 at age 20. His showdown the next year in the final against Hagen was a classic. After missing a short putt early in the match, he told Hagen, "I'm glad I missed that, so when I beat your brains out today there will be no alibi." In refusing to give a short putt, he said, "Hole it. I'm going to give you nothing but hell today." When Sarazen won with a birdie on the 38th hole, it marked the only time Hagen lost a PGA final. "The hour after that match was the first and only time I have ever seen Hagen depressed," Sarazen later wrote.

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Seve BallesterosThe Spaniard's ability to invent recovery shots, all-world short game skills and fierce competitive passion made him ideally suited for match play. Ballesteros was undefeated in five World Match Play finals, defeating Ben Crenshaw, Sandy Lyle and Bernard Langer twice in the 80s and Nick Price in 1991. Above all, he was a transformational figure in the Ryder Cup. His partnership with Jose Maria Olazabal is the greatest ever in the matches. In singles he was only 2-4-2, but win or lose, the heart with which he played inspired his team and the European fans. Ballesteros said this of his opponents: "I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, 'I am going to bury you.'"

Photo By: Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Tiger WoodsFor all the carping about Woods not being dominant in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup (he is a combined 6-3-1 in singles), his overall match-play record is of a piece with his medal-play accomplishments. The feat of winning three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs, followed by three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles is, along with Nelson's 11 straight victories and Jones' version of the Grand Slam, arguably golf's most unassailable record. Woods is also the only three-time winner of the WGC Match Play Championship, in the process producing the largest margin of victory in an 18-hole match -- 9 and 8 against Stephen Ames in 2006 -- and in a 36-hole final -- 8 and 7 against Stewart Cink in 2008. For good measure, Woods is 11-1 in playoffs on the PGA Tour.

Photo By: Robin Loznak/AP Photo

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