Kuchar overcomes trying week to win WGC

By Rex HoggardFebruary 25, 2013, 1:43 am

MARANA, Ariz. – It was strangely apropos that on the same day the PGA Tour officially pushed back on the proposed ban on anchoring some wondered if the “Kooch” style of putting should be considered nonconforming, the byproduct of namesake Matt Kuchar’s workmanlike effort atop Dove Mountain this week.

Not that a ban on the “Kooch,” which features a longer putter shaft with the handle buried into the left forearm, would make much of a difference according to Kuchar’s longtime putting coach Dave Stockton Sr.

“I wanted him to put the butt of the club in his wrist and it just kept going up and up (his forearm),” Stockton said last month. “Either way he’s a great putter.”

Through five wild wintery days in the Arizona highlands Kuchar was the best of a bunch that included the better part of the world’s top 64 players, rolling through the delayed early rounds at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and weathering the weather and a relentless rally by Hunter Mahan in Sunday’s title bout to collect his first WGC salad bowl.

Consider Kuchar’s line for the week at the WGC-Snowball Fight features putting totals of 28, 28, 22, 24, 25 and 20. While that includes the normal number of conceded offerings and shortened rounds it could get U.S. Golf Association types reconsidering their decision to make the “Kooch” stroke legal under the proposed ban.

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A week sent sideways by nearly 4 inches of snow on Wednesday, multiple frost and freeze-related delays and gusts on Sunday that reached 30 mph was made whole by the circuit’s ultimate meat-and-potatos guy.

For the week Kuchar smiled his way to six victories, trailed a total of three holes and never reached the 18th tee in competition.

“Match play I find to be such an amazing, unique format, so much fun to play and so much pressure,” said Kuchar, who has advanced to the final four the last three years at the Match Play and improved to 15-3 at the event. “It seems like each hole there's so much momentum riding and so much pressure.”

Even Kuchar’s 2-and-1 victory over Mahan wasn’t as close as the line would suggest. Through nine holes Kuchar was 4 up, the byproduct of Mahan’s 4-over outward effort as much as Kuchar’s steady start, but he cut short the comeback with a 7-footer to trade birdies with Mahan at the 12th and a 10-footer for birdie at the short par-4 15th hole, both times to remain 2 up.

“He’s more of like a fuzzier Peter Jacobsen kind of guy who likes to talk,” said Mahan, the defending champion whose run of holes without trailing at the Match Play ended at a staggering 166 frames on Sunday. “It's just fun to be around him. And the way he plays, it's going to make you play your best as well.”

And while that unorthodox putting style may be what propelled Kuchar to victory, the ubiquitous smile, a stout pair of winter gloves and three sets of chemical hand warmers were the why.

“Those gloves were the MVP today,” smiled Kuchar’s caddie Lance Bennett, who loaned his boss the gloves for Sunday’s shootout. “He’s really good at managing his ball in tough conditions. He never lets anything faze him. He never has a bad attitude.”

It was easy to go negative at Dove Mountain, particularly as the temperature dropped and the delays mounted.

From snow to sunscreen to windswept, the 2013 Match Play endured three of four seasons and four untimely exits by each of the top four seeded players.

In order the Match Play doled out capricious body blows to the marquee that had nothing to do with Mother Nature. First Tiger Woods was sent packing in Round 1 for the third time in 13 years, a 2-and-1 sleeper to Charles Howell III; followed by world No. 1 Rory McIlroy’s one-and-done loss to Shane Lowry (Note to all other tournament organizers: if you want to Tiger-proof your tournament switch to match play; he is now 3-for-13 at the WGC).

Friday was no more predictable with world No. 3 Luke Donald and the last remaining top-seeded player Louis Oosthuizen getting bounced by Scott Piercy and Robert Garrigus, respectively.

No. 10 Bubba Watson was the last remaining top-10 player who made it to the weekend. That’s not a WGC, that’s the Tampa Bay Championship, which many suggest should be the new home for the Match Play which has suffered snow delays twice in the last three years and annually struggles at the gate.

By the time Sunday’s gale blew away those metaphorical clouds, however, few could argue the merit of the last men standing.

Following a 36-hole Saturday (Note to Match Play officials: doubling up on Saturday worked well, bringing Wednesday’s start into question) Kuchar handed Jason Day, who won the bridesmaid match over Ian Poulter, his only loss of the week, 4 and 3, and added to a resume that now includes a Players Championship (2012) and a WGC.

It’s a reality that casts Kuchar into an altogether new spotlight that has nothing to do with his putting style. Transformed by swing coach Chris O'Connell following a fall from competitive grace in the mid-2000s, Kuchar’s status as arguably the best player without a major championship is as sound as that evergreen smile.

Following the snow that briefly delayed the final match in 2011, Kuchar’s children have returned to Dove Mountain each year awaiting a similar white-out despite assurances from Dad, “It’s Tucson, it’s not going to snow.”

It turns out the only thing more predictable than snow at Dove Mountain is Kuchar.

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G-Mac has Ryder Cup on mind with Genesis in grasp

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 2:12 am

LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell is four years removed from his last start in a Ryder Cup and golf is more than seven months away from this year’s matches, but then it’s never too early to start daydreaming.

Following a third-round 70 that left him tied for third place and just two strokes off the lead at the Genesis Open, McDowell was asked if the matches are on his mind.

“I feel like I've got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now it's probably not a realistic goal, but if I continue to play the way I'm playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal.”

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McDowell began his week at Riviera Country Club fresh off four consecutive missed cuts and has drifted to 219th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But his play this week has been encouraging and the Northern Irishman has always relished the opportunity to play for Europe.

“Deep down I know I'm good enough, but I've got to show, I've got to put some results on the board, I've got to take care of my business,” he said. “The greatest experience of my career bar none, and I would love to play another couple Ryder Cup matches before it's all said and done.”

McDowell does have a potential advantage this year having won the French Open twice at Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches.

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Bubba on McGrady block: 'Just trying not to get hurt'

By Will GrayFebruary 18, 2018, 1:56 am

LOS ANGELES – A detour to the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game didn’t keep Bubba Watson from leading this week’s Genesis Open, although an on-court brush with Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady nearly derailed his chances for a third tournament win.

Watson enters the final round at Riviera with a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay after firing a 6-under 65 in the third round. The day before, the southpaw left the course around lunch time and headed across town to participate in the All-Star festivities, where during the celebrity game he tried to score 1-on-1 over McGrady.

Watson’s move into the lane went about as well as you’d expect given their five-inch height disparity, with McGrady easily blocking the ball into the stands. According to Watson, he had only one thought as McGrady came barreling towards him across the lane.

“When I saw him, all I saw was, ‘This is my moment to get hurt,’” Watson said. “This big tank is about to hit me, and I was like, ‘Just knock it into the stands. Just don’t touch me.’ So it worked out, he didn’t touch me so it was good.”

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Watson’s attempt went against his wife Angie’s advice to avoid the paint area, but it provided a fun moment for a player used to carving up fairways and greens – not to mention the guy who played 15 seasons in the NBA.

“Well, he’s got like just under 800 blocks for his career, so I gave him one more, you know?” Watson said. “It was just, it was a blast. I wanted to see how good he was, see if he could miss it. He hasn’t played in a while.”

Watson took some heat on Twitter from his PGA Tour peers for the rejection, but few were still laughing as he rocketed up the leaderboard Saturday with five birdies and an eagle. Now he has a chance to win this event for the third time since 2014 – even if he doesn’t plan to go toe-to-toe with McGrady again anytime soon.

“Some guys wanted to try to win MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment,” Watson said. “I was just trying not to get hurt.”

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Spieth on third-round 69: 'Putter saved me'

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:37 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth has spent the last few weeks talking about his putting for all the wrong reasons.

Two weeks ago when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he lost 3.76 shots to the field in strokes-gained putting, and last week he wasn’t much better.

It looked like more of the same at the Genesis Open when he lost about a half stroke to the field on Day 1 with 29 putts, but since then his fortunes on the greens have gotten progressively better.

“I thought each day last week I progressed,” said Spieth, who needed just 24 putts on Friday and moved into a tie for 20th after taking 26 putts on Day 3.

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Spieth said he started to feel things turn around at Pebble Beach after working with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and Steve Stricker, who has become something of a putting sounding board for players on Tour.

“I got set up really nice. I got really comfortable on the greens even though they were very difficult to putt last week and this week,” said Spieth, who rolled in a birdie putt of 14 feet at No. 12 and a par putt of 35 feet at No. 14. “Any putt, I either made it or I left it just short today. It was one of those days that with the way I struck the ball, it was an off day, but that putter saved me and allowed me to shoot the lowest score so far this week.”

Spieth’s third-round 69 is his best of the week and moved him to within seven strokes of the lead, which is held by Bubba Watson.

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Bouncing back: Watson seeks a third Riviera win

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:25 am

LOS ANGELES – Yeah, but can Tracy McGrady smoke a 7-iron from 203 yards to kick-in range for eagle on Riviera Country Club’s opening hole?

The way Bubba Watson’s mind drifts there’s no telling if, as he began his day at the Genesis Open, he revisited his play from Friday night at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. If he did, it would have been an apropos conclusion after McGrady sent his weak floater into the cheap seats midway through the second quarter.

Either way, Watson made it clear playtime was over on Saturday. The eagle at the opening par 4 ½ sent Watson on his way to a third-round 65 and the outright lead at the Left Coast event that’s starting to feel like a second home for the lefthander.

In 11 starts at Riviera, Watson already has two victories. A third on Sunday could get folks talking about renaming the layout Bubba’s Alley. Or not.

What is certain is that Watson has emerged from a funk that sent him tumbling outside the top 100 in the world ranking and he’s done it in quintessential Bubba style.

If Friday’s detour to the celebrity game received worldwide attention it was only a snapshot of Watson’s Tinseltown itinerary. He taped a segment for Jay Leno’s Garage show, visited with Ellen DeGeneres and watched a taping of The Big Bang Theory. You know, L.A. stuff.

Oh, and he’s curved and carved his way around Riviera with signature abandon.

“You've got to hit shots from every different angle, you've got to move it right to left and left to right, so it's just fun,” said Watson, who also led by one stroke when he won here in 2016, his last victory on the PGA Tour. “Then the greens are the equalizer so it makes me look like I putt as good as the other guys.”

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He “hammered” a 7-iron from 203 yards at the first to 1 ½ feet for his opening eagle, chipped in at the sixth to begin a run of four birdies in five holes and played the three par 5s in 3 under to move into a familiar spot after enduring his worst season on Tour in 2017 when he failed to advance past the second playoff event.

That he’s turned the tide in Los Angeles is as predictable as it is peculiar. Despite Watson’s record at the Genesis Open, Riviera wouldn’t seem to be the tonic for all that ails Bubba.

Ask a player - any player will do - the keys to playing Riviera and the answers range wildly from it being a bomber’s course to the need for ball-striking precision. But the word that comes up with regularity is "patience."

“Patience and pretty much just not being stupid, to be honest,” Justin Thomas said when asked the key to his third-round 67 that left him tied for eighth place. “Just stop trying to hit at pins with 5-irons and 6-irons, and when I hit in the rough, realize just try to make a par. When I get in places, when I'm out of position, realize that sometimes even bogey is what I need to make.”

While that thought dovetails with conventional wisdom, Watson’s not exactly known for his patience.

“Oh, for sure I do. Haven't you seen me in the last 12 years?” Watson laughed when asked if he had patience on the course. “The tougher the golf course, the more focus I have. The tougher the shot, I've been able to focus better. When I get my mind on something, I can focus and do pretty well at the game of golf.”

While Bubba drifts between artist and antagonist with ease, both on and off the golf course, his primary challenge on Sunday is the picture of thoughtful composure.

Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the Tour last season after struggling with back issues for years, began the third round with a share of the lead but quickly faded on the front nine. He rallied on the closing loop with birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 18, where he capped his day with a 54-footer that assured him a spot in Sunday’s final threesome. Although he’s just 25 and playing his first full season on Tour, Cantlay’s approach to the game is patently different from Watson’s.

“I feel like if I can just engage and not worry about where I am on a particular hole or what's going on and I just engage and stay present in whatever I'm doing at that particular time, it all turns out better than what you would expect,” explained Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA and played dozens of practice rounds at Riviera. “Making sure you stay present and having that confidence in yourself that if you just click in and focus, it all will be good and that's kind of the head space I'm in.”

It will be a clash of wildly contrasting styles on Sunday – Watson, who admitted he “(doesn’t) focus very well,” and Cantlay, whose approach to the mental side of the game borders on the clinical.

One player relishes the challenge of hyper-focus, the other is Bubba, but that’s not to say Watson is void of patience, only that he needs to be properly motivated.

“Like last night when Tracy McGrady was coming at me, I was focused on not getting hurt and I didn't, so it worked out,” Watson smiled.

And besides, T-Mac can’t bomb it like Bubba.