As soon as Matt Kuchar jarred a bunker shot on Harbour Town’s final hole and again when he clinched the RBC Heritage title some 30 minutes later to exorcise the demons of three consecutive top-five finishes in the past three weeks without a victory, I was reminded of a classic interview-room story from two years ago.
This was just after Kuchar had clinched his Players Championship win, arguably the most important of his career. Much like this week’s triumph on Hilton Head Island, that one vanquished a fair amount of demons, too, as he’d gone nearly two years without a win while banking enough money to be confused for a mint, the byproduct of 13 top-10 finishes.
And so when he sat down to answer questions from the assembled media, I asked him one that seemed totally reasonable. I asked how frustrating it had been to play so well for so long without earning a trophy.
“You can suck it, big guy,” he responded. “You had to point that out.”
Trust me: He said this with that patented perma-smile etched across his face. But that didn’t underscore the truth.
While he’s long made it a goal to be one of the game’s most consistent performers, he also felt the sting of so many wouldas, couldas and shouldas. Getting into contention is fun, but consistently getting there without winning can turn even a squeaky-clean guy like Kuchar into a downright potty mouth.
Here’s guessing that if he was asked a similar question on Sunday, after his seventh career PGA Tour win, he may have proffered a similar response, weeks of that frustration filtering from his lips.
Entering the RBC Heritage, Kuchar owned seven top 10s in 10 starts this season, but it was a recent string of close calls that deemed him the game’s hottest player without a recent title.
Three weeks earlier, he’d failed to keep pace with Steven Bowditch at the Valero Texas Open and finished in a share of fourth place. The next week, he made a mess of the closing hole at the Shell Houston Open and eventually lost in a playoff to Matt Jones. And in his most recent start, he was among a group of contenders who ended up well back of Bubba Watson as he claimed a share of fifth place.
“You do what you can when you get opportunities,” he said presciently at Augusta. “Certainly I know better than to press in the game of golf.”
Like so many stories, there were two ways to look at this string of white-knucklers: Either he was building toward the crescendo of a victory or it was growing proof that he struggles to close the deal when in the mix on Sunday afternoons.
Following the 71st hole at Harbour Town, there were already whispers that the truth was the latter. Seven days after suffering a four-putt at the Masters, Kuchar three-putted the 17th green from just 4 feet away. A potential two-shot lead dropped him into a share of it with Luke Donald, the ghosts of weeks gone by already nipping at his heels.
What happened next, though, substantiated the crescendo theory. On the final hole, Kuchar deposited his approach shot into the front bunker, then calmly holed his next shot for an unlikely birdie, punctuated by a hat wave and a caddie hand-smack.
“I would have liked to have made the putt on 17, knocked it on the green on 18 and two-putted,” he later admitted. “But to go ahead and do it this way, hole the bunker shot, it’s something I’ll never forget. The roar of the crowd was awesome.”
Kuchar didn’t technically win the tournament until Donald finished the final hole, surrounded by his family in the locker room. “It’s trophy-getting’ time!” he told his two young boys. Maybe one of these days he’ll regale them with the old tale, The Little Engine That Could. If so, he could draw some terrific parallels.
In the golf version of this story, it was their dad who was chugging up and around that mountain, hoping to successfully reach the finish line. Which is exactly what happened. In the last four weeks, he owns four top-five finishes and has earned a whopping $2,350,000.
There isn’t always a happy ending when players consistently get themselves into contention. Sometimes all of these close calls never equate to a trophy. Sometimes they only lead to greater frustration at the thought of playing so well and having nothing to show for it – except, of course, that pile of cash which acts as a nice consolation prize.
If you happen to run into Matt Kuchar soon, ask him about these frustrations and how they were compounded in the weeks leading up to his latest victory.
He’ll still have that perma-smile splashed across his face, but don’t be surprised if one of the game’s most upstanding players responds with an answer that could leave him depositing a few bucks into the swear jar. Don’t worry, though. After the month he’s had, he can easily afford it.