By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM Columnist
Now that fame and fortune have come to Matt Kuchar, the golfer who sought neither is nimbly handling both. This can happen to one who is able to keep his balance through good times and bad, as Kuchar did during the first half of his pro career, by focusing on goals he knew could be achieved only with patience and perseverance.
Living out the good times, Kuchar, 34, sat next to Jack Nicklaus on Sunday, an hour after finishing off a 12-under-par 276 for a two-stroke win at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance and founded by Nicklaus himself. He was coming off his second victory of the season, the sixth of his career, his fifth in the past five years, and Kuchar – who had just risen to a career-high No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking – looked like a player who knows where he’s going and remembers what got him where he is.
It helps to remember. Kuchar won his first PGA TOUR title, The Honda Classic in 2002, his second full season as a pro. He was 23 and marked for greatness, the tall kid with the glittering smile and game to match, the “can't miss” prospect whose resume included the 1997 U.S. Amateur Champion, the 1999 Fred Haskins Award winner as top collegiate player, an All-American at Georgia Tech who had been the low amateur at both the Masters and U.S. Open in 1998.
Surely, the thinking went in ‘02, the same guy who had succeeded Tiger Woods as U.S. Amateur champion, could compete on the pro level with the dominating Woods, who already had won 29 PGA TOUR events, including the career Grand Slam, by the time Kuchar won The Honda Classic.
Like many expectations conferred by popular acclaim, that one never materialized. Few recall that Kuchar went nearly eight years until his next victory. Even fewer recall that he lost his TOUR card after the 2005 season and was banished to the Web.com Tour.
Kuchar hasn’t forgotten though. And even after his big win in the high winds on the fast greens at Muirfield Village, a victory he nearly made look easy, he didn’t wave off a mention of the one-year sidetrip to the bushes as “old news,” or “something from another lifetime.” Rather, he fondly recalled the ’06 season as a sort of post-graduate degree, a necessary stop that provided much of the impetus for his fast track back from a near-bust to the second-highest ranked American in the world after the No. 1-ranked Woods.
“I wasn't going to let it bother me,” Kuchar said. “I think some guys look at it as an insult. Some guys it bothers. Some guys don't recover. I knew this is where I belonged. I was just going to do my job down there and get back out here. So I look back at it, and a lot of things that came out of it.”
One of the most important things is the change to his current one-plane swing, a move made at the urging of his coach, Chris O’Connell. The flatter, more repeatable swing has turned Kuchar into one of the game’s most consistent ball-strikers. Although translating the consistency into wins took almost two years – from his 2007 return to full-time status until he won the Turning Stone Resort Championship in a playoff in 2009 – the incremental improvements were immediate.
He shaved more than a half-stroke per round from his scoring average in ’07, to 70.70, a career low, which ranked him 74th on TOUR, a career high. While he was at it, he changed putters from a conventional length and technique to a longer putter, which he anchors to his left forearm – a technique that conforms to the Rules of Golf. From 2009 to 2010, he improved from 64th on TOUR to 10th in strokes gained-putting, and is currently No. 14 in that category.
The overall improvements continued each year until 2010, his watershed season, during which he averaged 69.61 to win the Vardon Trophy and Byron Nelson awards for best on TOUR. He won The Barclays, finished second in the FedExCup standings, and won the money title.
“I'm hitting it in the sweet spot time and time again,” Kuchar said. “It's a huge advantage to know what I'm able to do with the golf ball and to be able to hit it solid and control it in the wind.”
Never was that more evident than last week, when Kuchar found the sweet spot at Muirfield, ranking No. 1 in greens in regulation (75 percent) and No. 2 in strokes gained-putting, basically the keys to the vault at any golf tournament.
Now Kuchar, who once said he always wanted to be the guy “who found his name on the leaderboard week in and week out,” has surpassed that goal. And the same guy who thought he couldn’t do things with the golf ball that players like Woods and Ernie Els is at a point where he says, “My golf game has evolved enough to a point where I feel I’m close to being able to do those things I thought I never could. I can hit long irons high in the air, I can hit wedges low and skip them. I feel like I have a great deal of control and enough distance to be competitive, as well.”
And he isn’t satisfied with that. Kuchar, now viewed as one of the players to beat at the upcoming U.S. Open at Merion, is in the same sentence with Woods. After getting some tips from Nicklaus about how to prepare for an Open, Kuchar planned to be at Merion today, familiarizing himself with the layout, getting comfortable, thinking about winning.
“I’m looking forward to my chances there at Merion,” Kuchar said. And thinking back to last year’s tie for third at the Masters, his highest finish in a major, he added, “Playing good on that late Sunday at the Masters certainly helped give me some more confidence that I can do this. The more comfortable you are the better you do. Playing late at a major only helps you become more comfortable when that situation comes up again.”
The confidence bespeaks the past five years of plenty. The balanced view comes from the seven lean years preceding them. Matt Kuchar’s perspective, like his future, looks brighter than ever.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.