CAREFREE — When the pressure mounted, experience paid dividends for Michael Hopper, as the 33-year-old won his second consecutive and third career Southwest PGA Match Play Championship at Desert Forest Golf Club on Thursday.
Hopper is the first player to win back-to-back titles since Frank Boynton in 1979 and 1980. He is just the third player in tournament history to win three championships, joining Tom Tatum (three; 1982, 1985, 1992) and John Jackson (four; 1976, 1978, 1988, 1993).
“It just feels good,” Hopper said. “I like to think I’ve played pretty well the last few years. I like to think that maybe I am something now in match play. That did give me a little incentive to make some kind of history there.”
Hopper defeated Marty Jertson, who also resides in Phoenix, by one hole in the final round of match play. Jertson entered the tournament ranked first in the Southwest PGA Player of the Year rankings. Hopper had been ranked third.
The defending champion and 2011 winner claimed three of the first five holes to take a plus-3 lead in the early going, but Jertson responded with three straight victories of his own that included a run of back-to-back birdies. Hopper held a slim one-hole advantage after the front nine.
“Some of those thoughts do come into your head,” Hopper said of feeling overconfident early on. “I was really just trying to not make any mistakes. But then I made some mistakes and he made some really good shots there on 7 and 8. Squared up the match and then it was back to business there on 10. I was feeling a little pressure there.”
The two continued to trade blows, and Hopper maintained his slim advantage as play moved to the 17th hole. On the par 3, Hopper sent his drive into a bunker just short of the green. But Jertson hit a beauty that landed about five feet from the flag.
However, Jertson failed to convert the birdie putt and could not take advantage. Hopper recovered well and put his ball just a few feet from the hole after wedging out of the sand, and both players shot par for the hole — meaning all Hopper had to do was draw the next hole with Jertson to seal his victory.
“It seems like I hit it in that bunker every year in the semifinals or finals match, so I actually felt pretty comfortable with that bunker shot,” Hopper said. “I was pretty concerned he would make his putt, but he just missed it. I figured if I could go to 18 one up, then I had a real good chance of finishing it off.”
And he did, with both players making par on the 18th hole — securing Hopper’s place in tournament history.
“I don’t get caught up in too much of the match play strategy,” he said. “I just try to play my ball and just try and keep it in front of me. I think a lot about the mental game when I’m playing. I was feeling the heat, but it was fun.”