SAN FRANCISCO – Talk about an unlikely time to make an ace: at the into-the-wind, 235-yard 17th hole at Harding Park, with the match all square, against one of the best players in the world.
“Under the circumstances,” Ben Martin said Wednesday, “that’s definitely the best shot I’ve ever hit.”
Martin’s improbable ace at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play gave him his first lead of the day against Matt Kuchar, then it proved to be enough when Kuchar’s 5-foot birdie putt slid by on the final hole.
Kuchar, who has advanced past the third round each of the past four years in the old one-and-done format, including a win in 2013, now needs some help if he hopes to advance. He admitted that he still hasn’t completely grasped the new format, but later, upon further review, conceded, “A lot has to work out now.”
Martin, meanwhile, will take on another player with an excellent match-play record, Hunter Mahan, on Day 2. Mahan is 14-2 in this event.
This was the eighth hole-in-one of Martin’s career (first on Tour), and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The match seemed to turn on the 13th hole, when Kuchar was looking at an 8-foot birdie putt to move 2 up with five to play. Martin got up and down from right of green, Kuchar missed his putt, and they walked off the green with matching 3s. Martin won the next hole to square the match.
Then came the 17th.
After he struck his tee shot with a hybrid, Martin didn’t even bother to look where the ball finished up because his eyesight isn’t strong. He was almost back to his bag when he heard the roar – or as much noise as the dozen or so people huddled around the green could produce.
“A little bit of disbelief,” Martin said.
“It was beautiful the whole way,” said Kuchar, who hit his tee shot to 30 feet – normally, a great shot on that hole – and stumbled to the par-5 18th needing to win to extend the match.
The worry for Martin was composing himself after the adrenaline rush, but he gave himself a 10-footer to win and slapped his thigh in disgust when it slid by. He was prepared to head back to the first tee for the playoff, but Kuchar missed his try, too.
Martin was one of the last players in the field, after entering the RBC Heritage at No. 64 in the world. He hasn’t played a match-play event since he was runner-up at the 2009 U.S. Amateur.
“Every match coming down to the end, it’s almost like the feeling of Sunday in a regular Tour event,” he said. “That’s why I love to play, being on the top of the leaderboard on Sunday, and to have that every single day really gets me going.”