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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Tiger can't commit, goes OB on 16: 'That’s on me'

By Will GrayMarch 18, 2018, 11:05 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Standing on the 16th tee with the leaders in sight and the roars of the crowd still ringing in his ears, Tiger Woods contemplated three different options for his most critical tee shot of the week.

He couldn’t decide on any of them, and as a result deposited his chances of winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational into a backyard adjacent to the fairway.

Woods was only one shot back through 15 holes, but with the leaders well behind him on the course he knew he needed at least a birdie on the par-5 16th to keep pace. Instead, he pulled his tee shot left and out of bounds, leading to an untimely and costly bogey on the easiest hole on the course.

“I was caught,” Woods said. “I couldn’t decide what I was going to do.”

In Woods’ mind, he had three options: “fit” a driver left to right with the shape of the fairway, “bomb it over the top” of the dogleg or just hit a 3-wood “straight away.” He opted for the driver, but after missing right the first three days he sent his ball sailing left.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

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“I bailed out and hit a bad shot,” Woods said. “And that’s on me for not committing.”

Woods went on to bogey the next hole, but after a par save on No. 18 he finished the week in a tie for fifth at 10 under for his third straight top-12 finish. Given the sizzling close of Rory McIlroy, an eagle on 16 likely would have still left him looking up at the Ulsterman on the leaderboard.

“Even though I got up there, I just knew I needed to keep making birdies,” Woods said. “Those guys had so many holes behind me, where I just birdied the same holes and so if they made birdie on those holes, I would have to keep going. I got to 16, I figure I’ve got to play the last three holes in 3 under to have a chance and probably force a playoff. And maybe that wouldn’t have been good enough the way Rory is playing back there.”

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McIlroy (64) storms to Arnold Palmer victory

By Nick MentaMarch 18, 2018, 10:48 pm

Rory McIlroy fired a bogey-free, final-round 64, birdied the 72nd hole in Tiger-esque fashion and stormed to a three-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Here’s how Rory ended his winless drought, and how the aforementioned Woods made a Sunday charge before collapsing late:

Leaderboard: McIlroy (-18), Bryson DeChambeau (-15), Justin Rose (-14), Henrik Stenson (-13), Woods (-10), Ryan Moore (-10)

What it means: This is McIlroy’s 14th PGA Tour victory and his first worldwide win since Sept. 25th, 2016. That was the day he walked away from East Lake with both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup. It was also the day Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87. With the win, McIlroy reasserts himself as a force following a winless 2017 in which he was plagued by a nagging rib injury. The four-time major winner will make one more start at next week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and then make his way to Augusta National, where he looks to complete the career Grand Slam.

Round of the day: Two back to start the final round, McIlroy made his eight birdies in bunches. He circled three of his last four holes on the front nine – Nos. 6, 7 and 9 – to make the turn in 3-under 33 and work his way into the mix. Following three pars at 10-12, he caught fire, ripping off five birdies in his final six holes. He took the outright lead at 14, chipped in at 15, and sealed the deal at 18.

Best of the rest: DeChambeau made McIlroy earn it, cutting the lead to just one when he eagled the 16th hole as McIlroy was walking to the final tee. A par at 17 and a bogey at 18 netted him 68 and solo second.

Big disappointment: This is Stenson’s fourth top-five finish at this event in the last six years. The overnight leader by one, he went 71-71 over the weekend and bogeyed 18 to finish fourth.

Biggest disappointment: Woods made a vintage Sunday charge at Bay Hill before bogeying two of his final three holes and settling for a final-round 69 and a tie for fifth.The eight-time API winner was minus-5 on the day and just one off the lead when he sniped his tee shot at the par-5 16th out of bounds to the left. He bogeyed both 16 and 17 before making a scrambling par at 18 to finish the week 10 under par.

Shot of the day: McIlroy’s birdie putt at 18.

Remind you of anything?

Quote of the day: "It means a lot. You know, the last time I won a PGA Tour event was the day Mr. Palmer passed away, so it's a little bit ironic that I come here and win. He set a great example for all of us players to try and follow in his footsteps. If everyone on Tour could handle themselves the way Arnie did, the game of golf would be in a better place. ... To be able to win his event, I wish I walked up that hill and got a handshake from him but I'm so happy to my name on that trophy." - McIlroy

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TT postscript: Masters hype builds after final-round charge

By Tiger TrackerMarch 18, 2018, 10:36 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Here are some thoughts from walking one last loop alongside Tiger Woods on another steamy afternoon at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

• What might have been. Woods transformed Bay Hill into an absolutely electric atmosphere when he started the back nine with three birdies in four holes to get within a shot of the lead. Dressed in his traditional red and black, it was a second straight Sunday where we were treated to watching him try to catch the leaders down the stretch.

• But the momentum he had built up disappeared with a single tee shot, as Woods pulled his drive on the par-5 16th out of bounds and into someone’s backyard. His chances for a ninth tournament title were effectively ended with one errant swing, as he bogeyed the easiest hole on the course and then bogeyed the next for good measure.

• While the closing stretch was disappointing, it was still another remarkable week for Woods considering where his game stood a month ago. His 3-under 69 in the final round lifted him to 10 under for the week, and he ended up in a tie for fifth. He’s now on the cusp of the top 100 in the world rankings, and he’ll head to the Masters on the heels of three straight top-12 finishes for the first time since 2008.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

• It didn’t take long after his final putt dropped for Augusta National to become a topic of conversation. Woods has played only once since 2014, and he plans to make a return trip before the season’s first major to re-acclimate himself with the course and make sure his yardage book “is still good.”

• Taking the long view on things, Woods was all smiles about his comeback that remains a work in progress. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments,” Woods said, “I would have taken that in a heartbeat.”

After going T-2 and T-5 in this latest fortnight, Woods will now have two weeks off before he tees it up for a chance to win his fourth green jacket, his first major since 2008 and his first tournament anywhere since 2013. Can. Not. Wait.

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Highlights: Tiger (69) makes charge, collapses

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 18, 2018, 9:45 pm

Tiger Woods made a vintage Sunday charge at Bay Hill before bogeying two of his final three holes and settling for a final-round 69 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The eight-time API winner was 5 under on the day and just one off the lead when he sniped his tee shot at the par-5 16th out of bounds to the left. He bogeyed both 16 and 17 before making a scrambling par at 18 to finish the week 10 under par, in a tie for fifth.

"I didn't commit to it," Woods said of his drive at 16, where he attempted to fly his ball over the fairway bunkers, rather than hitting a cut or laying back. "And that's on me for not committing."

Starting five off the lead, Tiger got rolling with with a laced 2-iron and a par at No. 1.

Woods hit the green at the par-3 second but left himself a 50-foot birdie putt and a 6-footer to save par, which he walked in.

A two-putt 4 at the par-5 fourth gave Woods his first birdie of the day and moved him to 8 under for the week. Apparently energized, Tiger pulled driver at the short par-4 fifth and unleashed this violent swing.

A pitch from the thick rough hit a sprinkler head and stopped on the apron, leading to this birdie try, which fortunately hit the pin but unfortunately didn't fall.

Looking to pick up another stroke - or two - at the par-5 sixth, Woods took his drive 317 yards over the water and hit this second shot from 227 yards to 13 feet, leading to another two-putt birdie when his eagle try burned the right edge.

Returning to his trusty 2-iron, Tiger found the fairway at the par-4 eighth and then threw this dart from 176 yards to 6 feet and rolled in his third birdie putt of the day to move to 10 under.

His momentum was slowed by his first bogey of the day at No. 9, the product of an errant drive and its ensuing complications. As a result, Woods made the turn 2 under on his round, 9 under for the week, and still five off the lead, like when he started the day.

But Woods wouldn't wait long to make up for his mistake, immediately responding with another flagged iron and birdie at No. 10.

He continued his assault on Bay Hill's par-5s at the 12th, getting up and down from the sand for a birdie-4 that moved him to 11 under par, just two off the lead.

This roll at 13 giving him his third birdie in four holes, and the charge was officially on, as Woods was suddenly just a shot back.

Just when it looked like Woods was primed for a late run at his 80th PGA Tour victory, Woods stepped to the tee at the par-5 16th, where he had missed wide right three days in a row, and ripped his drive out of bounds into a backyard miles left.

He made 4 on his second ball for a bogey-6 and dropped another shot at the par-3 17th, ending his chances.