Hawk's Nest: Kuchar's reclaim to fame

By John HawkinsJune 3, 2013, 2:13 pm

Matt Kuchar is not America’s best golfer. That distinction remains the property of Tiger Woods, who looked a little funny in that red shirt Sunday afternoon while trying to whittle away at a 20-stroke deficit. With three elite-field victories in 13 months and a whopping 35 top-10s in 86 starts since the beginning of 2010, however, Kuchar’s remarkable climb to the game’s top-tier status is a success story worth examining, particularly as his body of work gets stronger.

A quick aside: At some point in the mid-2000s, I was asked to do a piece on Matt’s father, Pete, who had gained a measure of notoriety with his over-the-top behavior while caddying for his son in 1998. Pete was a living, breathing fist-pump, an attention magnet who rejoiced every time Matt made a putt, which was quite often in those days.

Like a lot of people, I thought Pete did too much dancing in the end zone for a guy who hadn’t scored the touchdown, and I wrote that. Years later, I called the Kuchar house and got Pete’s wife, Meg, who couldn’t have been nicer. Her husband wasn’t home at the time, however, and she instructed me to call back the next day.

So I did, and Meg basically hung up on me. I guess their subscription to Golf World magazine hadn’t run out, after all.

In a business full of softball pitchers, a little chin music never hurt anyone. As Meg and Pete’s son approaches his 35th birthday, not since Steve Stricker have we seen a more complete career revival – Woods doesn’t qualify because he never fell far enough. In 2006, Kuchar was officially a bust, relegated to the Nationwide Tour after a third consecutive season outside the top 125 on the money list.

As recently as early 2010, he was still outside the top 60 in the world ranking, having won a PGA Tour event for the first time in 7 ½ years during the ’09 Fall Series. Even during the lowest points, Kuchar was always a fairly efficient putter, but in ’10, he leapt from 132nd to 34th in greens in regulation and began piling up top-10s the same way my daughters have amassed an impressive collection of Barbie dolls in the basement.

Still, I wanted more. I covered the 2010 Barclays at Ridgewood CC, which now stands as Kuchar’s breakthrough victory, and know he won that tournament because Martin Laird couldn’t two-putt from 20 feet on the 72nd hole. Another 20 months would pass before Kuchar’s triumph at The Players. On a couple of occasions during my tenure on the “Grey Goose 19th Hole,” we were asked if Kuchar was one of America’s premier players, and I repeatedly said he needed to win more often to earn a spot in my top tier.

Kuchar has done exactly that, not only winning big tournaments, but immediately bouncing back from the 54-hole lead he let get away at Colonial and protecting more leads than he squanders. Which takes us to the next and most difficult step: winning a major championship.

For all he has done since restarting his career in 2006, Stricker’s poor performance at the major remains a mystery. For all Hal Sutton accomplished after bottoming out in 1992, his comeback did not include a major title, either. Here’s a quick look at my three favorite reclamation projects and how I rank them in terms of achievement and improbability:

1. Stricker. Nine victories since 2007, including two FedEx Cup playoff events, a Memorial and a Northern Trust Open. Finished second in the final FedEx Cup standings three consecutive seasons (2009-11). Won back-to-back Comebacker Player of the Year awards (2006-07). If the PGA Tour has any common sense, that accomplishment will never be equaled.

2. Sutton. Won six times from 1998 through 2001, finishing fifth, sixth and fourth on the money list, respectively, during that stretch. His comeback really didn’t take off until after Sutton turned 40. “There was a time when I was embarrassed to stand on the range and hit balls next to these guys,” he once said.

3. Kuchar. Four wins and 18 top-fives in 64 starts since the 2010 Barclays. Pro golf’s ultimate work in progress, Kuchar’s rise to the game’s highest level has occurred despite poor showings in several key statistical categories – T-161 in total driving and T-159 in scrambling from outside 30 yards are the most obvious. What does that mean? Only that he can get better. And in all likelihood, he will.

IF THE MASTERS is the world’s finest sporting event, the U.S. Open bears a much stronger resemblance to my seventh-grade social studies teacher. Pushy. Inflexible. Too hard for its own good – difficult to the point where you wonder about a motive.

Mrs. Gardner probably wasn’t wired to deal with a classroom full of 13-year-old kids, and there are years when the USGA’s heavy hand on course setups has unduly neutralized the skills of the game’s best players. Last June’s visit to The Olympic Club was yet another example of how a venue didn’t require much treatment to serve as a premium test, especially one with an abundance of pronounced doglegs and uneven lies.

Despite a closing stretch featuring back-to-back par 5s and a short par 4 at the 18th, the only late drama at Olympic came in the form of Jim Furyk’s meltdown. The top eight finishers played those final three holes in a combined 1 under. You want fireworks? Try Independence Day, as Webb Simpson won the tournament from the clubhouse after completing his round with eight consecutive pars.

Hey, I get it. It’s the U.S. Open. It has to be hard – tough right up to the edge of stupid. Such a premise is entwined in the USGA’s mission, the obvious contradiction being that an organization forever looking to speed up play and make the game more enjoyable invariably trots out a showcase event that is tediously slow and chronically laborious.

As a journalist who feels no obligation to sell tickets or pump TV ratings, who sees the idea of “growing the game” as something of a potential double-edged sword, I am as interested as anyone to see what happens next week at Merion. Will the big boys kill the place? It’s possible – the last two winners on the PGA Tour (Boo Weekley, Kuchar), barely missed a fairway on Sunday, and if you play from the short grass in Philly, you’re almost certain to make some back-nine birdies.

When Rory McIlroy ambushed Congressional to shoot 16 under and win the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots, the greens were softer than cupcakes, turning our national championship into target practice on a course that is usually a stout challenge. Rain is the USGA’s worst enemy, more because it leads to lower scores than any delays in play.

Merion promises a bunch of short-iron approaches to those who hit it straight off the tee, weather or not. Congressional proved that easier isn’t necessarily more exciting. Olympic proved that extremely difficult can lead to a weekend afternoon nap, and with all due respect to golf fans who love to see the blood, I’m among those who want to see the guts.

A heroic performance under the greatest competitive pressure. It’s more fun to watch, it’s a lot more fun to write – and it keeps people standing around the water cooler much longer on Monday morning.

MY FAVORITE TIGERPHILE, known here as Mr. Pinkberry, clearly was agitated when I called him Saturday afternoon and told him his guy had just needed 44 strokes to traverse Muirfield Village’s back nine. “Thanks for ruining my weekend,” Pinky replied, although my twisted brand of logic tells me the eruption will serve Woods well when it comes to performing next week at Merion.

Even the Dude in the Red Shirt needs to hear the alarm clock now and then, and this should have been a wakeup call. On a course where he has dominated in the past, Woods finished 20 back despite ranking T-5 for the week in driving accuracy. Granted, Tiger hit more 3-woods off the tee than most of his fellow competitors, but it’s not like he’ll be hitting 11 or 12 drivers at Merion, either.

Eldrick threw away strokes in bunches at Jack’s place – three doubles and two triples on the weekend – and never went more than eight holes without a bogey. Seeing how he won twice in his final start before a major last season, then again before this year’s Masters, I don’t see how his worst performance in at least two years will do anything but sharpen his focus for the U.S. Open.

I fully expect Mr. Pinkberry to be talking trash in less than two weeks.

EVERY VETERAN GOLF writer has his favorites, whether they admit it or not, and one of mine is Paul Casey. For all Kuchar has done to salvage his competitive existence, Casey has done the opposite, falling from a career-best third in the world ranking (2009) to the abyss (he’s 157th now).

A dislocated shoulder in late 2011 and turf toe had a lot to do with Casey’s slide, but there has been more to it than that. While waiting for a flight at the Orlando Airport a couple of years back, I was befriended by Casey’s former in-laws, who spoke in vague terms about marital troubles between Casey and their daughter, Jocelyn.

It takes a lot to make me feel uncomfortable, but that certainly qualified. Because I’m not Rona Barrett, and because I know a fair number of tour pros who have gone through divorces, I never addressed the matter on my live chats or in print. In my mind, it simply wasn’t relevant.

Casey has since admitted that the dissolution of his marriage after less than three years had a profound effect on his game. He remains virtually invisible as a competitor, earning just $63,335 in 12 U.S. starts since the beginning of 2012, but last week, he was one of a dozen U.S. Open qualifiers to emerge from a sectional in Walton Heath, England.

It’s not much, but maybe it’s a start. And a reminder that pro golfers are people, too. They just have lower handicaps than you and me.

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.

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Landry stays hot, leads desert shootout at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 12:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Andrew Landry topped the crowded CareerBuilder Challenge leaderboard after another low-scoring day in the sunny Coachella Valley.

Landry shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday on PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to reach 16 under. He opened with a 63 on Thursday at La Quinta Country Club.

''Wind was down again,'' Landry said. ''It's like a dome out here.''

Jon Rahm, the first-round leader after a 62 at La Quinta, was a stroke back. He had two early bogeys in a 67 on the Nicklaus layout.

''It's tough to come back because I feel like I expected myself to go to the range and keep just flushing everything like I did yesterday,'' Rahm said. ''Everything was just a little bit off.''

Jason Kokrak was 14 under after a 67 at Nicklaus. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson was 13 under along with Michael Kim and Martin Piller. Johnson had a 64 at Nicklaus.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Landry, Rahm, Kokrak and Johnson will finish the rotation Saturday at PGA West's Stadium Course, also the site of the final round.

''You need to hit it a lot more accurate off the tee because being in the fairway is a lot more important,'' Rahm said about the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, a layout the former Arizona State player likened to the Dye-designed Karsten course on the school's campus. ''With the small greens, you have water in play. You need to be more precise. Clearly the hardest golf course.''

Landry pointed to the Saturday forecast.

''I think the wind's supposed to be up like 10 to 20 mph or something, so I know that golf course can get a little mean,'' Landry said. ''Especially, those last three or four holes.''

The 30-year-old former Arkansas player had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. After winning his second Web.com Tour title last year, he had two top-10 finishes in October and November at the start the PGA Tour season.

''We're in a good spot right now,'' Landry said. ''I played two good rounds of golf, bogey-free both times, and it's just nice to be able to hit a lot of good quality shots and get rewarded when you're making good putts.''

Rahm had four birdies and the two bogeys on his first six holes. He short-sided himself in the left bunker on the par-3 12th for his first bogey of the week and three-putted the par-4 14th – pulling a 3-footer and loudly asking ''What?'' – to drop another stroke.

''A couple of those bad swings cost me,'' Rahm said.

The top-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, Rahm made his first par of the day on the par-4 16th and followed with five more before birdieing the par-5 fourth. The 23-year-old Spaniard also birdied the par-5 seventh and par-3 eighth.

''I had close birdie putts over the last four holes and made two of them, so I think that kind of clicked,'' said Rahm, set to defend his title next week at Torrey Pines.

He has played the par 5s in 9 under with an eagle and seven birdies.

Johnson has taken a relaxed approach to the week, cutting his practice to two nine-hole rounds on the Stadium Course.

''I'm not saying that's why I'm playing well, but I took it really chill and the golf courses haven't changed,'' Johnson said. ''La Quinta's still really pure, right out in front of you, as is the Nicklaus.''

Playing partner Phil Mickelson followed his opening 70 at La Quinta with a 68 at Nicklaus to get to 6 under. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer is playing his first tournament of since late October.

''The scores obviously aren't what I want, but it's pretty close and I feel good about my game,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game. It's easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average.''

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 70 at Nicklaus to match Mickelson at 6 under. The Southern California recruit is playing his first PGA Tour event. He tied for 65th in the Australian Open in November in his first start in a professional tournament.