Hawk's Nest: Kuchar's reclaim to fame

By John HawkinsJune 3, 2013, 2:13 pm

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.

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Molinari reflects on beating Woods at Ryder Cup, Open

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 9:11 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Francesco Molinari might be a useful resource for the European Ryder Cup team.

He’s already beaten Tiger Woods, head to head, at a Ryder Cup and a major.

Molinari was in the anchor match at the 2012 Ryder Cup when Woods conceded on the final hole to give the Europeans an outright victory in the incredible comeback at Medinah. He said the last hole was a “blur,” and it remains the last Ryder Cup that both Molinari and Woods played.

“I’ve improved a lot as a player since 2012,” said Molinari, who lost his previous singles match against Woods in 2010, 4 and 3, “and I hope to show that on the course this week.”

The proof is the claret jug that he now keeps at home.

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To win his first major he needed to not only endure the circus that a Woods group brings, but he needed to outlast the 14-time major champion and a host of other worthy contenders to prevail at Carnoustie.

Reflecting on that momentous day Tuesday, Molinari said he initially was dreading the final-round date with Woods.

“If I’m completely honest, I wasn’t exactly hoping to be paired with Tiger, not because I don’t like to play with him, but because, obviously, the hype and with him being in contention in a major, it’s going to be noisy and it’s going to be a lot of people," he said. 

“So the most challenging part was probably that moment when the draw came out, but then I quickly managed to think, You know, whatever. I don’t really care. I’m here to do a job, and they can’t really influence how I do my job.”  

To thrive in that situation gave Molinari a lot of confidence – especially heading into a pressure-cooker like the Ryder Cup.

Asked whether it’s more pressure trying to win a major or a Ryder Cup – since he’s now done both – Molinari said: “You won’t believe me, but it’s nowhere near. Carnoustie was nowhere near Medinah or in any matching ways. It’s hard to believe, but it’s probably because you play for a team; you play for a continent in our case, and you know about the tradition and what players have done in the past.”

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Woods 25/1 to break Nicklaus' record by age 50

By Will GraySeptember 25, 2018, 9:05 am

With his victory at the Tour Championship, Tiger Woods crept closer to Sam Snead's all-time PGA Tour wins mark. But he also got fans thinking about whether golf's most famous record is once again in play.

Woods has been stuck on 14 career major titles since the 2008 U.S. Open, although he had a pair of close calls this summer. But now that he's again a winner on Tour, oddsmakers at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook created bets on where Woods' career major haul will end up.

The line they drew in the sand? Dec. 30, 2025 - when Woods, now 42, will turn 50 years old.

According to the Westgate, Woods is a -150 favorite to win at least one more major by that time. He's 2/1 to win at least two more, 5/1 to win at least three more and 12/1 to win at least four more. But it'll take five more majors to break Nicklaus' record haul of 18, and the odds on Woods doing that by age 50 are set at 25/1.

There are also odds on Woods' 2019 major prospects, as he's already the betting favorite for the Masters at 9/1. Woods' odds of winning any major next year are listed at +225, while the pessimists can wager -275 that his major victory drought will extend to at least 2020.

There's even a bet for those expecting some serious history: the odds of Woods sweeping all four majors next year at age 43 are 200/1.

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All 12 Europeans have history at Le Golf National

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 8:55 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The European team has plenty of experience at Ryder Cup venue Le Golf National, which has been the longtime host of the French Open.

The question this week is whether it’ll matter.

The only American player to compete in this year’s French Open was Justin Thomas. Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau and Bubba Watson all got a look at Le Golf National before The Open.

Not surprisingly, the European team has a proven track record here – all 12 players have seen the course at some point. Alex Noren won in July. Tommy Fleetwood is a past champion, too. So is European vice captain Graeme McDowell. Francesco Molinari and assistant Lee Westwood also have runners-up here.

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“I definitely think it’s a help to us, for sure,” Ian Poulter said. “It’s probably the most-played venue as a Ryder Cup venue for all of the European players that have played. So we definitely have a feel of how this golf course has played in very different weather conditions. I definitely think we have an understanding of how this golf course can play.”

Of course, this setup is no different than what players typically experience as they prepare for a major championship. They’ll play 18 holes each of the next two days, then maybe nine holes on Thursday, as they get a feel for the layout.  

“When it’s the best players in the world, and we play on golf courses week-in and week-out where we have to learn a new golf course, it’s difficult to say how much of an advantage it will be,” Fleetwood said. “It can only be a good thing, or it can’t do any harm that we know the course better or that we’ve played it more times.

“Knowledge can only be a good thing. Maybe it’s a little advantage, but it’s the best players in the world that are out here, so it’s not something to look at too much.”

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First-tee grandstand 'biggest you'll ever see'

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 8:27 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The first-tee nerves could be even more intense this week at the Ryder Cup.

If only because of the atmosphere.

The grandstand surrounding the first hole at Le Golf National is unlike anything that’s ever been seen at this event – a 6,500-seat behemoth that dwarfs the previous arenas.

“It’s the biggest grandstand you’ll ever see at a golf tournament,” Tommy Fleetwood said.

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“It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had to hit that tee shot before,” Ian Poulter said. “When I think back (to my first Ryder Cup) in 2004, the stand is nothing like what we have today. So it really is going to be quite a special moment Friday, and it’s going to be very interesting to see.”

Poulter said it’ll be his job to prepare, as best he can, the team’s rookies for what they’ll experience when the first ball goes in the air Friday morning.

“The No. 1 thing I’ve pictured since the Ryder Cup became a goal is that first tee shot,” Fleetwood said. “But nothing prepares you for the real thing. The grandstand is pretty big – there’s no denying that.

“It’s something that everybody wants in their career, so as nerve-wracking as it is, and whatever those feelings are, everybody wants that in their life. So you just have to take it on and let it all happen.”