By Mark Lamport-Stokes
MARANA, Arizona (Reuters) - Hunter Mahan came up agonizingly short in his bid to complete a successful title defense at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Sunday but felt he had become a better player than he was a year ago.
Until he went one-down to eventual winner Matt Kuchar at the par-four fourth in the final, Mahan had completed 169 consecutive holes without trailing in a run dating back to the opening round of last year's tournament.
"It's a pretty crazy stat," Mahan told reporters after losing the title match 2&1 to fellow American Kuchar on a bitterly cold, windy afternoon at Dove Mountain.
"It's been a great run. I've had some good luck along the way, no doubt, but played a lot of good golf.
"I have a good sense of this golf course. I feel like I can play it well. I have confidence every time I step on the tee. To beat some of the guys I've beat the last two years I think is impressive, and I'm very proud of that fact for sure."
Asked if he was a better player than when he clinched the 2012 Match Play title with a 2&1 victory over Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy in the final, Mahan replied: "Without a doubt.
"I feel like I have more control, more understanding of my game than I did back then, than last year. Through the (weather) conditions, I might have played slightly better this year.
"I just had a bad stretch there where Matt didn't help me at all. He just made a bunch of pars and played really solid golf."
Mahan began the day with a commanding 4&3 win against 2010 Match Play champion Ian Poulter, a mouth-watering semi-final that had been eagerly anticipated between two of the best matchplay exponents in the game.
"I played well all day, had a great match against Ian," said Mahan, a five-times winner on the PGA Tour who had used a sharp short game to devastating effect against the Briton.
"It's easy to get up for Ian because he's so good in match play. He's such a competitor. Today I played really well, got up and down from a lot of tough spots, and my short game definitely carried me today.
"I just had a bad stretch against Matt on the front nine there that put me just a little bit too far behind."
Mahan piled up four consecutive bogeys from the par-three third as the wind gusted up to 30mph to go three-down to Kuchar. He was never able to fully recover, despite a run of four birdies in five holes after the turn.
"I gained some momentum on 10 and started playing a lot better after that, but it was just too little, too late," smiled Mahan.
"There wasn't a facet of the game that the wind wasn't going to affect you on. With the cold, it's just hard to keep your hands warm and keep a sense of feel.
"Kuch, I think he deserved to win because he did a better job in every facet than I did."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Ian Ransom)