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Monday Scramble: Kuchar's resurgence continues; so does Spieth's slide

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Matt Kuchar continues to roll, Jordan Spieth's rally comes up short, Padraig Harrington carries a new title, a tipping rumor circulates and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

On the 18th green, Matt Kuchar tried, for perhaps the first time publicly, to quote a rapper: "I think it might have been Jay-Z that said 40 is the new 20."

Well, no, he rapped that 30 was the new 20 – thus the title of his song, “30 Something” – but Kuchar’s point was well taken. He turned 40 last June and is experiencing a career rebirth. He's now playing some of the best golf of his life, winning the Sony Open on Sunday for his second title in his past three Tour starts. It’s just the second time in his career that he’s won multiple events in the same season.

“It’s not like you hit 40 and you have to go away,” Kuchar said. “Certainly I’m off to a way better start than I would have expected. It feels good.”

His resurgence doesn’t mean he’s primed for a Player of the Year season, of course. Both of his wins came on tight, demanding tracks. (Like many on Tour, he’ll have to pick his spots.) He’s a short-ball hitter on a circuit that doesn’t just favor the bomb-and-gouge style, but actually promotes it. For all of his efforts he’s still only No. 7 in the U.S. Presidents Cup standings.

But only a few months after he looked to be slipping out of the spotlight, Kuchar is back up to No. 22 in the world, almost guaranteed a return to East Lake for the Tour Championship and holding his own against the Tour’s onslaught of youth. That alone is a noteworthy accomplishment.

1. Now that’s how you close out a tournament.

When Kuchar snapped a four-year winless drought in Mexico (more on that later), he stumbled to the finish line: bogeys on 14 and 15, leaving a putt short on 16, jamming a putt by on 17. “I just didn’t look as solid and steady as I would’ve hoped,” he said.

That wasn’t the case at the Sony. Sure, he was sloppy early, making three bogeys in his first five holes (he had just one over the first 54 holes) to surrender his lead. But he made six birdies over his last 10 holes, including three on the final four, to put away Andrew Putnam and cruise to a four-shot victory.

“That was my first time really getting to enjoy the stroll up 18,” he said.

2. Kuchar’s highlight reel is more subdued than most, but no stroke at the Sony was more significant than this putt to give himself a cushion on the closing stretch. And look, a fist pump!

3. So what’s behind the turnaround?

Last fall Kuchar failed to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time since 2009 and was relegated to vice-captain duties in Paris. The smiling assassin was frustrated and disappointed – but not ultimately hopeless – because he wasn’t getting the results he expected. Then he had an encouraging range session with swing coach Chris O’Connell the week before the Vegas event.

Though he didn’t play particularly well at the Shriners, tying for 57th, he felt good about the state of his game as he headed south of the border. At the Mayakoba, he shot 22-under 262 (at the time, the best 72-hole score of his career), then followed it up with a 258 total that is now a personal best and the 10th-lowest in Tour history.

Ranking 136th in driving distance (291.6), it’s imperative for Kuchar to find the fairways. And at claustrophobic Waialae, he tied for fourth in driving accuracy, missed only 12 greens all week and ranked third in putting.

“I feel like I’m in good control of the hitting,” he said.

4. Coming off his worst year as a pro, Jordan Spieth added the Sony Open to his schedule because he wanted to learn how his game currently stacks up.

The conclusion: There’s much work to be done.

On the eve of the tournament, Spieth said that he didn’t put as much work into his game this offseason as seasons’ past. Hey, there’s something to be said for a mental reset, but that still was a surprising revelation, considering he’d experienced a drop-off in nearly every statistical category. There were no quick fixes here.

Over two days Spieth was uncharacteristically sloppy with some iron shots – he said that he felt like he was playing with four different swings – and, until the back nine Friday, looked mechanical on the greens. And yet, he still only missed the cut by one, after three birdies in his final four holes. The mini-surge was promising.   

It could be a few more weeks (… or months) until he regains some confidence, and his patience will undoubtedly be tested. At least there’s plenty of time until the Masters.

5. Wrote more about it here, but there’s a reason why Padraig Harrington wasn’t in a celebratory mood at his Ryder Cup news conference: He knows the uphill battle he’s facing. Put simply, it’d be a monumental achievement for Harrington and the Europeans to knock off the power-hitting Americans at an unfavorable venue in front of hostile crowds two years after the U.S. was embarrassed. There’s a reason Lee Westwood passed until 2022.

6. The 2019 golf season finally begins in earnest this week, with the Tour returning to the mainland for the Desert Classic starring Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm; the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship (note: Wednesday start!) featuring Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood; the LPGA kicking off its year with the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions; and the seniors get going in Hawaii. It also should include some Tiger Woods news, or way or another: He has until 5 p.m. Friday to commit to next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, where he was widely expected to begin his 2019 campaign.  

Former Tour player Tom Gillis called out Kuchar on Twitter over the weekend, claiming that the man with $45 million in career earnings had only paid his fill-in local caddie $3,000 after his slump-busting victory last fall at Mayakoba.

Kuchar said Saturday night that he paid the caddie neither 10 percent nor the rumored $3,000 and that “it’s not a story.” He later told a reporter that “we had an agreement to start the week.”

Only Kuchar and the man nicknamed “El Tucan” can separate truth from rumor, but that would seem a mighty non-denial denial on Kuchar's part.

There’s no rule, of course, that states a player must dole out 10 percent to his bagman for a victory. There’s also a lot that goes into that standard allocation beyond a normal week’s work. But it’s also not unreasonable to expect a man of immense wealth to take care of a local caddie for whom an extra 50 or 100K would go a long way.

Gillis maintains that there's more to come, so stay tuned:

This week's award winners ...

Oldie But Goodie: Davis Love III. It wasn’t just the 40-year-old Kuchar who was turning back the clock. How about Love, 54, who finished seventh after a sizzling 64-65 weekend? The 264 total was one shot shy of his career-best 72-hole score. It was also his 180th career top-10 on Tour.

Don’t Celebrate Just Yet …: Lucy Li. Over the weekend she put on social media (like so many others) her invitation to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur event, but she might not want to make travel arrangements just yet. A USGA spokesman confirmed that the organization is still looking into whether Li compromised her amateur status by appearing in an Apple Watch ad.

Winning Bump: Charles Howell III. After his long-awaited victory in Sea Island, Howell has built on that with a pair of top-15s, including a T-8 at the Sony, one of his personal playgrounds. Success begets success.

Worth Keeping An Eye On: Spring Tour schedule. Adam Scott raised some eyebrows when he said that he wouldn’t play the remaining WGCs this year, because they don’t “fall in the right weeks for me.” Indeed, most interesting to monitor are the field lists for Mexico (which immediately follows the West Coast swing) and the Match Play, which comes on the back-end of the Bay Hill-Players-Tampa stretch and is a less-than-ideal warmup for the Masters, which is only two weeks later.  

How ’Bout This, Gearheads?: Tommy Fleetwood. After clinging to the final model of Nike irons, the Englishman finally appears set to make a club change. He was spotted using a set of TaylorMade irons, with “P-7TW” stamped on the head – the TW, of course, being Tiger Woods, for whom the set was specifically designed.  

Interesting Strategy: Harrington and his captain’s picks. He’s poring over the stats, but the new European skipper said that he likely wants FEWER wildcard picks – not more. Said Harrington: “My thinking is, Does the ninth guy ever get skipped over? I don’t think it has happened, and I think the players are more comfortable and more confident if they’ve qualified directly rather than getting a pick.” Normally, captains like the idea of having four picks so they can shape the team as they see fit, or address any weaknesses in the lineup, but Harrington makes a good point.

A Kid Worth Cheering For: Maverick McNealy. Not only did he agree to be mic’d up for the first two rounds of the season-opening Web event, but he announced that he was donating $20 for every birdie made this year to Curriki, an online education service. Click here for more. Good on ya, Mav.

King of Self-Deprecation: Max Homa. The former Cal star missed the cut at the Sony, but he continues to offer some much-needed humor on the straight-laced Tour.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kevin Kisner. Would seem a horse for the course, with a pair of top-5s in his last three trips to Waialae. And perhaps his form might carry over from the fall, when he closed out with a T-7 at Sea Island. Instead, though he survived the 54-hole cut, he placed 69th. Sigh.