In our rush to typecast, it’s easy to shoehorn Matt Kuchar into generalized categories – nice guy, team player, consistent. If they ever made a movie of Kuchar’s life, Opie of “Andy Griffith Show” fame seems the obvious stand in.
What we don’t see – what is hidden away behind the boy-next-door smile and inviting demeanor – is a competitor who is driven often to extremes, a gamer who is inspired to win twice in a single season, to win a major, to just win.
That grit was on display early last Monday on the practice tee at Watters Creek Golf Club in Plano, Texas, not 12 hours after Kuchar had come up a stroke short at Hogan’s Alley to Boo Weekley.
“He finished solo second at Colonial and Monday at 9 a.m. we were on the range back at it until he had to catch his flight (to the Memorial),” said Kuchar’s swing coach Chris O’Connell.
“Second sucks,” is a phrase Kuchar would never utter, at least not in public, but know this – behind the smile and the sense of humor is the cold heart of a closer and it was on full display Sunday at Muirfield Village.
For three days Kuchar had endured crusty greens and gusting winds that sent players with more polished pedigrees reaching for calculators to add up the damage and he entered the final turn two strokes clear of the field.
One by one they made a run at Kuchar. First it was Kyle Stanley, who birdied four of five holes just before the turn to pull within one stroke. Then Kevin Chappell, who birdied the 11th to tie for the lead and matched Kuchar with another birdie at the 15th hole to keep pace with the front-runner.
But for each punch Kuchar had an answer. He two-putted for birdie at the 11th and 15th holes to hold serve, and rebounded from a bogey at No. 16 with a 16-footer for birdie at the last to secure a two-stroke victory.
“When that putt went in I was excited to win, but I think it was even more excitement than just a regular tournament,” said Kuchar, who won his sixth Tour title. “That was not just a relief that I've two-putted and sealed the deal; that was, yes, I have done it. Yes, I have won the Memorial. It felt so good.”
It was, by almost every measure, a textbook performance for Kuchar. He hit 13 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation on Sunday. Even his bogey at the 16th he “didn't think was that bad” and despite 33 putts on Day 4, he finished second for the week in strokes gained-putting.
It was quintessential Kuchar, calculating and workman-like. Even O’Connell, who spent two weeks prior to the Memorial working with Kuchar at his club in Plano during the Texas swing, was in awe of the performance.
“The last seven holes he just really put on a clinic there. He was in total control of his game,” O’Connell said.
The victory elevates Kuchar to darling status in two weeks at Merion, and conventional wisdom suggested the Memorial would be a good tune-up for this year’s Open. But considering the wind-whipped conditions perhaps it was a better litmus test for the British – not U.S. – Open.
Winds gusted to 15 (Thursday), 40 (during Friday’s storms) and 25 mph (Saturday) and players were sent off both the first and 10th tees in threesomes on the weekend in an attempt to dodge a parade of incoming fronts and complete play.
For Tiger Woods, the 2013 Memorial even had the feel of a past British Open, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
On Saturday, Woods’ opened his day with two double bogeys (Nos. 12 and 15), a triple bogey (No. 18) and a bogey (No. 17) that added up to an opening-nine 44, the highest nine-hole score of his professional career, and a third-round 79.
Only his second-round 81 at Muirfield during the 2002 British Open has been higher since Woods joined the play-for-pay ranks. Although he was seven strokes better on Sunday his tie for 65th is his worst four-round finish since he tied for 78th at the 2010 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
“I didn't putt very well. I had bad speed all week. I thought the greens didn't look that fast, but they were putting fast,” said Woods, who entered the week fresh off his fourth victory of the season at TPC Sawgrass. “I could never get the speed of them.”
But if an A.P.B. (all-points bulletin) was needed for Woods’ flat stick, or maybe just another impromptu lesson from Steve Stricker, the other end of the bag seemed to be working just fine. He finished fifth in fairways hit and connected with 13 of 18 greens in regulation on Sunday.
McIlroy was only slightly better than Woods at Muirfield Village. The world No. 2 tied for 57th following a 78 on Day 1.
If the high-profile twosome’s hard week didn’t change the dynamic heading into Merion, Kuchar’s play will leave the door open to alternative scenarios with the year’s second major looming.
“Heading into Merion, I'll have a lot of confidence,” said Kuchar, who plans to make a scouting trip to the Philadelphia classic on Tuesday. “I think most guys will be in a similar boat in having to learn that golf course. But from what I understand you've got to drive it well, as you do in a U.S. Open, and I feel like I've been really driving the ball well.”
A major is the next item on his “to do” list and while any major would do, the U.S. Open would be particularly endearing for Kuchar.
“I don’t think he feels expectations,” O’Connell said. “One of his goals last year was to win multiple events. Another thing on his list is to win a major and he’s performed well in the majors the last couple of years. He looks at it like a natural progression.”
For a player who has been typecast his entire career, following this week’s performance at Jack’s place there is one last part Kuchar seems destined to play – major champion.