PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Perhaps it’s a sign of the times.
Tiger Woods had Jack Nicklaus and those 18 majors pinned prominently in his room growing up in southern California, Phil Mickelson looked up to Arnold Palmer and his swashbuckling ways – golf icons to be emulated and revered.
The new era took a slightly different path.
On consecutive weeks the game’s top stage has been dominated by one player who idolized tennis great Boris Becker and another who looked up to motocross legend Jeremy McGrath, but in the case of Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler, the second love had more staying power.
Not that Kuchar turned his back on the hard court entirely. He even warmed up for Sunday’s title bout at The Players Championship by making quick work of his father and father-in-law in a doubles match paired with his wife, winning the third set 6-4.
“They destroyed us,” smiled Peter Kuchar.
The same could be said of The Players field, which made multiple runs at Kuchar on a windswept day at TPC Sawgrass but the smiling assassin offered no unforced errors.
Kuchar, who began the final set . . . eh, round, a stroke behind Kevin Na, took a share of the lead at the sixth and pulled away on the back nine for his fourth career PGA Tour title to become the second-highest-ranked American (fifth).
And just imagine, had it not been for Peter Kuchar’s decision to send his 12-year-old prodigy to a tennis camp, the Stadium Course would have been void of choruses of “Kooch” on this Mother’s Day.
“At camp they worked him so hard and he realized how hard it was,” Peter Kuchar said. “Then we put a (golf) club in his hand and he was just a natural.”
Kuchar made it look easy on Sunday, picking apart Pete Dye’s playground with a game more suited to Wimbledon’s grass than the hard courts of the U.S. Open, posting four under-par rounds(68-68-69-70) to finish at 13 under and two strokes clear of Fowler, Martin Laird, Zach Johnson and Ben Curtis.
For the week, Kuchar hit 35 of 56 fairways, 53 of 72 greens in regulation and was second in strokes gained putting.
“I knew it was going to be a tough day but this is so special on Mother’s Day,” said Kuchar, whose father and mother live in the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., area.
Not that it was as effortless as it looked. Not on a blustery day alongside one of the slowest players on Tour. A day earlier Na had become the center of a pace-of-play debate with his flurry of waggles, step-aways and practice swings paired with Johnson.
On Sunday he made a point of speeding up, which may have cost him the tournament. But then the only way Na was going to win The Players was if it was moved backed to March . . . and finished in May.
Na’s inner demons were compounded by a less-than-friendly gallery and he struggled to a closing 76 to tie for seventh.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for me and a lot of people heckled me, but to be honest I deserved it,” Na said. “The average golfer doesn’t know what a fight it is mentally out there and I hung in there.”
So did Fowler, who made the most spirited charge at Kuchar, birdieing the island-green 17th from 21 feet to pull within two strokes, and his runner-up finish follows his Tour breakthrough last week at the Wells Fargo Championship and, in many observers' opinions, officially marks his transition from potential star to proven commodity.
It was a similar fork in the road that delivered Fowler to golf when he was 14 years old. A week before he was scheduled to qualify for his high school golf team Fowler fractured his right ankle in three places in a motocross accident. The next day he told his father to sell his motorcycle.
“He was so disappointed because he really wanted to make his high school team,” Rod Fowler recalled. “Rickie was always the guy who would hit the jumps first. We’d be sizing everything up and here would come Rickie and hit it perfectly.”
Since then Fowler has been racing to Tour stardom and his TPC Sawgrass also-ran only fueled the notion that perhaps all that hype was justified. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for golf with Woods’ ongoing struggles.
Count Woods’ tie for 40th as a half step forward. Although it was his worst finish at the Tour’s flagship event since 2005, his completed Sunday card at the least represents the first time since 2009 he’s gone the distance.
After consecutive years of injury-induced withdrawals, Woods rallied to make the cut on Friday with four straight birdies at the turn but wasn’t nearly as sharp on the weekend, posting four birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey on Day 4.
Still, the world No. 7 fared better than the newly crowned No. 1 – Rory McIlroy.
A week removed from his much-anticipated playoff with Fowler at Quail Hollow, the Ulsterman limped to rounds of 72-76 to remain imperfect at TPC Sawgrass, 0-for-3 in cuts made.
In fact, The Players continued a curious streak when it comes to the cream of pro golf’s crop. Just one player ranked inside the top 10 finished inside the top 10 at the Stadium Course.
But The Players hasn’t exactly been the domain of the game’s dominant since the jump to May in 2007. Just once since ’07 has there been more than one top-10 ranked player in the week’s top 10 at TPC Sawgrass and only two winners – No. 3 Phil Mickelson in ’07 and No. 9 Henrik Stenson in ’09 – were ranked inside the top 10 in the world at the time.
The exception to that rule this year was Luke Donald, whose Sunday 66 lifted him into sixth place and within a fraction of a point of McIlroy in the ranking.
“It’s been a good old tennis match between Rory and I recently,” Donald said.
For Kuchar and Fowler, The Players match reached break point on center court – TPC Sawgrass’ 16th and 17th holes – late Sunday. Less than 5 minutes after Fowler coaxed his birdie putt at No. 17 into the hole to pull within two strokes of the lead, Kuchar made a nervy 6-footer at the par-5 16th hole for the advantage.
Moments later Kuchar’s tee shot at the 17th dropped safely onto the middle of the green to all but end the duel between the two prodigies turned golfers.
Game, set and match.