Hawk's Nest: Kuchar's reclaim to fame


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.