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Monday Scramble: Like old times for Kuchar, Westwood

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Matt Kuchar ends a winless drought, Lee Westwood joins him in the winner’s circle, Jordan Spieth's career as a bachelor is over, the PGA Tour Champions season wraps up and more in this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble:

We interrupt the parade of fearless and fearsome 20-something winners for this message from the old-timers.

It was a week to turn back the clock, to appreciate a pair of aging warriors whose solid careers can easily be overlooked when the latest hotshot comes out and sets the tour on fire.

Matt Kuchar is 40 years old, past his athletic prime, focused on maximizing whatever is left of his career. Lee Westwood is even older, 45, with one eye already on his next chapter.

They both won Sunday, two victories that were difficult to predict and even harder to contextualize in a young man’s game. Does it portend more happy Sundays to come? Was it a reminder that even old dogs can still bite?   

Their relief afterward was evident, their happiness obvious.

For two players who have spent the past four-plus years wondering when, or if, they’d win again, what a wonderful Sunday it was.   

1. Golly gee, Kuchar is a winner again, after firing a tournament-record 22-under 262 to win the Mayakoba Golf Classic.

What, you couldn’t see this coming?

Kuchar tied for 57th last week in Vegas. A month and a half ago he was at the Ryder Cup – as an assistant captain. The top-10 machine had malfunctioned, producing only one since late March.  

And then this. Out of nowhere. Opening rounds of 64-64-65, staring down the red-hot Cam Champ for his eighth Tour victory.

“My 2018 wasn’t what I wanted,” Kuchar said, “but this is certainly a high note.”

2. Diagnosing his problem was easy: He was awful off the tee. On a tour that dramatically favors the big boppers, Kuchar was not only short but he was crooked, ranking 151st in strokes gained: off the tee last season.

In Mexico, he found 80 percent of the fairways and was third in driving accuracy.

3. That included a fairway hit on the 72nd hole, with a little bit of good fortune.

To earn his most recent victory, at the 2014 RBC Heritage, Kuchar rimmed in a bunker shot on the 72nd hole. Here, he clanked his tee shot off the trees and into the fairway, setting him up to hit the green with a short iron and win with a par.

4. Wild stat here from Golf Channel research guru Justin Ray.

Prior to Sunday, Kuchar (PGA Tour) and Westwood (European Tour) last won on a major tour on the same day: April 20, 2014.  

5. Jordan Spieth ended his life as a bachelor with more questions about his game than ever before. For the first time in his pro career – and probably for the first time since he was just beginning the game, as a youngster – Spieth will go an entire calendar year with a victory. That much was confirmed last week, when he shot 2-under 140 and missed the cut at the Mayakoba.

Spieth satisfied what appears to be his strength-of-field requirement by playing back-to-back weeks in Vegas and Mexico, but he couldn’t find his form. At the Shriners, he tied for 55th and nearly finished last in the field in strokes gained: off the tee. He switched back to his old driver and 3-wood, but that didn’t help – he ranked 114th in driving accuracy over the first two days, which wasn’t going to work at a claustrophobic track like El Camaleon.

Spieth will take off the next few months to enjoy married life and regroup. It’ll be interesting to see whether he can rebound in 2019, or if he’ll fall even further behind.

6. Lee Westwood was moved to tears Sunday as he snapped a 4 ½-year winless drought to win the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

It’s been a long run for the 45-year-old Englishman, who wondered, legitimately, if his winning days were over. He’d tumbled outside the top 100 in the world rankings and battled a balky putter over the last few years.

And yet he was almost perfect Sunday in South Africa, where he fired a 8-under 64 to surge past Sergio Garcia and win for the 24th time on the European Tour.

“I’m a bit emotional, to be honest,” he said afterward. “You’re never sure whether you’re going to be able to do it again.”

7. Westwood has shown signs of life of late, which many have pointed to the influence of his new girlfriend, Helen Storey, who was on the bag in Sun City. Westwood’s usual caddie, the excellent Billy Foster, had the week off.

This summer, Westwood recorded top-5 finishes at the Italian Open, Made in Denmark and Valderrama Masters before his long-awaited breakthrough.

“I’m getting old – I did one for the old men today,” he said. “You reach 45 and don’t know what to expect. But I’ve always felt comfortable playing this golf course. This one is very special.”

8. Maybe it’s because he’s sleeping better with his young child. Perhaps it’s him dialing in his new equipment. Or it could be that Thomas Bjorn gave him the lift he needed.

Whatever the case, Garcia has been a different player over the latter half of the season. Though his closing 70 wasn’t enough to complete the wire-to-wire victory at the Nedbank, it was another successful week for the Spaniard, who is now 51 under par across his past 16 stroke-play rounds. That doesn’t even include his stirring performance at the Ryder Cup, where he went 3-1.

In what was largely a forgettable campaign, with missed cuts in all four majors, Garcia now has some pieces to build upon for 2019.

9. There weren’t many surprises at the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship:

Bernhard Langer won the season-long race. (Duh.)

Scott McCarron couldn’t hold on to a 54-hole lead. (Again.)

And Vijay Singh – at age 55, after all those range sessions – shot 61 to win for the third time this season. (Obvi.)

It’s the seventh consecutive year that Langer has either won or finished second in the Schwab Cup race, and his fifth title overall. Even more remarkable when you consider that he’s now 0-for-11 at the season finale.   

McCarron had the lead heading into the final round, but he kicked it away, again, for the third time this season (0-3). He’s now 4-for-11 in his senior circuit with the lead.

And Singh capped the best year of his PGA Tour Champions career with a flourish. His 10-under 61 helped him erase a six-shot deficit.

The European Tour social-media team is consistently awesome, but this challenge was just plain cruel: giving Brandon Stone 500 attempts to make a hole-in-one, with an 8-iron.

He came close on several occasions, but – spoiler alert – he never got one to drop. Which was maddening to a player of his caliber.

Were they trying to destroy this poor guy? Rob him of his sanity? Or at the very least give him a nasty blister?

This week's award winners ... 

Suzy Whaley

Trailblazer: Suzy Whaley. Last week, Whaley was elected as the first female president in PGA of America history. A PGA member since 2001, it’ll be fascinating to see what kind of impact she can have during her two-year term. The golf world is watching.

You Keeping Track Of This?: Justin Rose. He gained it, lost it, and now he’ll be BACK to No. 1 after next week, even while sitting out this week’s season finale in Dubai.

Not Great A Great Look, Though: Rose. It looks like Rose, Paul Casey and American Julian Suri won’t play in Dubai, which is weird, because it’s a prestigious season finale for the tour they’ve supported much of the season.

Yikes: Cam Champ. Gunning for his second title in three weeks, he played Nos. 14-17 in the final round in 5 over par, dropping from 6 under to 1 under for the day.

Lorena Ochoa Effect: Gaby Lopez. The young Mexican player, 25, who was inspired – like many in her home country – by the inimitable Ochoa, captured her first LPGA title in China. She bogeyed the final two holes, but she still finished one clear of world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn.

Legend: Matt Kuchar’s caddie. Usual looper John Wood had a prior commitment, so Kuchar hired a local caddie, nicknamed “El Tucan,” to help him around for the working vacation. That proved highly lucrative.

Young Studs, Unite!: Tour Q-School finals. It’s always great to see the promising up-and-comers navigate their way through the Tour’s feeder system, and last week players like Norman Xiong, Braden Thornberry, Scottie Scheffler, Doug Ghim, Kris Ventura, Andy Zhang, Matt NeSmith, Jack Maguire and Min Woo Lee all advanced to the final stage of Q-School, which guarantees them status on the Web for 2019 and, more importantly, keeps them out of no-man’s-land for tour hopefuls.  

Familiar Sight: Haotong Li. Strange, but Li showed more emotion missing this putt in the final round of the Nedbank than any of his agonizing misses inside 5 feet on the last two holes a week earlier in Turkey. Oy.

No Thanks: Tiger Woods. According to The Telegraph, Woods reportedly turned down a $3.25 million appearance fee to play in the European Tour’s inaugural event in Saudi Arabia in January. Given the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, this was a wise PR move by Woods.

Yawn: Rory McIlroy. He never shot better than 1 under in any round, but his 1-under 287 total was enough to notch a tie for 21st. That represented a significant improvement on his tie for 54th at the WGC-HSBC Champions. He’s always had a stellar record at the European Tour season finale, so hopes are high for McIlroy to end 2018 on a high note this week.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Charles Howell III. A bit of a deep dive, since there were higher-ranked players in the field, but Howell tied for fifth in Malaysia and had previously been clutch at Mayakoba, with three top-10s and four other top-20s in nine career starts there. Then he missed the cut. Sigh.