Time for a star to step up on Tour in 2014


HUMBLE, Texas – Earlier this week, Rory McIlroy addressed a room full of reporters and said what everyone else seemed to be thinking in the wake of another Tiger Woods injury:

The sport is waiting for another dominant player, a guy who can stamp his authority on the game.

Matt Kuchar, the 11th-ranked player in the world, must have been listening. This week he has served up a 66-67-68 to seize control of the Shell Houston Open.

OK, so Kuchar – and even the mercurial Sergio Garcia, who is four shots behind – are probably not capable of moving the needle like Tiger, Phil and Rory. But hey, it’s a start.

The PGA Tour has endured a months-long power outage. Only one player, Zach Johnson, has won an event while ranked inside the top 10 in the world. Jason Day is the only other top-15 player to win an event this season.

“There’s a lot of depth in the game of golf,” Kuchar said.

There’s little doubt that parity is the PGA Tour’s new reality, but it poses a problem for both the casual fan, who has little interest in rooting for the 100th-ranked player in the world, and the elite player, who prefers having a dominant stud to measure his game against.

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“Golf in general is very wide open at the moment, and I think a few guys need to put their hands up and try and be the dominant players in this game, because that’s what people like to see,” McIlroy said. “Me personally, as a fan of golf, it would be nice to see someone sort of break away.”

Kuchar might not break away from the pack, but he’s a six-time winner and a world-class player – he can ascend to No. 5 with a win Sunday – so at least he offers hope that the stars are emerging from early-season hibernation.

He’s in the final group for the second week in a row, and the final-round forecast here calls for showers and thunderstorms, not the 25-mph winds that derailed his bid to win last Sunday in San Antonio. That day Kuchar was tied for the lead with nine holes to play but stumbled home with a 75. Steven Bowditch, the 339th-ranked player in the world, crawled across the finish line with a closing 76. Of his final-round score in tough conditions, Kuchar said, “I’m not ashamed.”

Maybe not, but that big number continued a disturbing trend for the game’s best players.

Bubba Watson blew the Phoenix Open.

McIlroy crumbled on the final day at the Honda.

No. 2 Adam Scott punted away a touchdown lead at Bay Hill.

And that’s just this season.

These final-day stumbles appear to be part of a larger issue: Since the start of the 2013 season, only 26 of the 57 third-round leaders have gone on to win. Viewed another way, players have found more success while trailing heading into Sunday than leading.

That makes you appreciate Tiger’s mind-boggling closing rate – 58 of 65 in PGA and European tour events – a little more, no?

When asked what that recent inability to close can be attributed to, Kuchar replied: “Probably some hard golf courses and hard conditions. Trying to beat the best in the world. It’s not an easy thing. You hope to get as big a lead as possible.”

Kuchar has accomplished that, though he gave one back on his final hole of the day, missing a 5-foot par putt. It was one of only two blemishes on a windy, unseasonably cool afternoon, his 4-under 68 matching the best round of the day. Only six players are within seven shots of his lead.

“Having a four-shot lead is a great position to be in,” said Kuchar, who has converted two of four chances when holding the 54-hole lead. “(Sunday) I think I’ll just go out and try to turn the four-shot lead into a five-shot lead and see if I can keep going.”

Kuchar is golf’s most consistent performer, with a Tour-best 42 top 10s since 2010. But he’s likely not the sport’s next dominator, the guy who will stamp his authority on the game.

That’s OK. This is a start. Perhaps the best players are emerging just in time for major season.