DUBLIN, Ohio – It was suggested earlier this week that Matt Kuchar’s new unkempt look has the added benefit of making him look tougher. Hardened, even, like a player who could win a U.S. Open.
But it’s not Kuchar’s suddenly AWOL razor that makes him a not-so-surprising favorite in a fortnight at Merion, particularly with the normal cast of A-list contenders weathering unforeseen storms – both meteorological and competitive – this week at the Memorial.
Two days removed from Rory McIlroy’s opening 78 and not long after Tiger Woods had signed for an outward loop of 44, the highest nine-hole card of his professional career, Kuchar endured what many considered the season’s toughest conditions on his way to a third-round 70 and a two-stroke lead.
The dismissive rub against Kuchar is that he’s too nice to step on the field when it matters the most. Of course, that analysis ignores the fact that he overpowered the world’s deepest tee sheet on his way to a two-stroke victory at last year’s Players. Or that he never saw the 18th hole on his way to a WGC walk-off at February’s Match Play Championship.
Don’t let the smile or the “aw shucks” demeanor fool you; Kuchar doesn’t just want to win, he wants to play the field into submission.
It’s why a player poll in a national magazine once voted Kuchar the most likely to trash-talk. And why pingpong tables from Medinah to Royal Melbourne felt like cliffs to lemmings to Woods and Phil Mickelson during recent Ryder and Presidents cups.
Consider Kuchar’s mood two weeks ago when he tied for 33rd at the Byron Nelson Championship after a closing 69 in difficult conditions.
“He was so disappointed,” said Chris O’Connell, Kuchar’s longtime swing coach. “It shows you how competitive he is. Afterward, he and I talked about the beauty of the PGA Tour because every week you get to start over.”
Kuchar reloaded at last week’s Colonial, finishing second to Boo Weekley, and opened his week at Muirfield Village with steady rounds of 68-70 before powering through the Saturday turn in the week’s worst wind to pull clear of the field.
“I can’t think of many more (days) that were harder,” Kuchar said of Saturday’s gusts that reached 25 mph. “This course is a challenge without wind. Put some wind into it and it’s really challenging. If it was as firm as it was on Thursday and Friday it would be unplayable.”
Following a lull in his game after his WGC victory at Dove Mountain, Kuchar was energized by two weeks with O’Connell, staying at his coach’s house, hosting a junior clinic at his club Watters Creek in Plano, Texas, and fine-tuning his swing in the run-up to Merion.
“He tends to play well in this time period and he likes the repetition,” O’Connell said. “He felt like Colonial is a good course for him. It rewards someone who doesn’t make mistakes.”
The same could be said for Merion. Particularly for a player who is attacking courses the way Kuchar has of late. He feels like he’s hitting his driver so well right now – he hit the big stick eight times on Saturday – it’s difficult for his caddie to even suggest dialing it back on certain holes including the 18th on Saturday when he cut the corner of the dogleg and had a wedge in for his approach shot.
But, as it's been for the better part of the last half-decade, it was his putter that lifted him to the top of the leaderboard.
Following a bogey at the par-5 15th, Kuchar’s tee shot caught a gust of wind and sailed into a bunker right of the 16th green. Or, as Kuchar figured, “the garden spot.” He blasted to 10 feet and calmly rolled in the putt, avoiding back-to-back bogeys and keeping the field at bay.
“There are several holes like that that some sort of golfing smarts really come into play,” said Kuchar, who is second in the field in strokes gained-putting.
Kuchar plans to make a scouting trip to Merion on Tuesday, and the ball-control tactician has already been tabbed as a clear contender on the quirky and confined layout. If he closes on Sunday for his sixth career Tour title, expect those predictions to only grow louder.
As for the tough-guy look, well, it’s safe to say he won’t be making a guest appearance on “Duck Dynasty” anytime soon.
“I’m dying to shave it off. My wife says she likes it,” he smiled.
The way he’s performed the last few weeks, he’ll still look like a U.S. Open tough guy even without the scruff.