Verdi: Kuchar in second place at THE PLAYERS, first in smiles

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Matt Kuchar had two poor swings late, but left smiling anyway after a round of 69 kept him one shot back.
May 12, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Why is this man smiling? Because he's Matt Kuchar. He will not need a facelift in his dotage, because he's already got a permanent smile. Every hour is happy hour for him. He always looks like he just thought of a good joke. It's as though he's never had a bad day.

Award-winning sports writer Bob Verdi is on site this week at THE PLAYERS Championship and will file a daily column for PGATOUR.COM.

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Saturday could have been one, because the wind was up, the pressure was on and his playing partner was off. But Kuchar made music out of a staccato third round to post a 69, depositing him one shot off Kevin Na's 12 under lead entering Sunday's finale at THE PLAYERS Championship.

"Different" is how Kuchar described the afternoon, and he can say that again. This guy is as reliable as a Swiss watch, yet he finished with two poor swings in the last half hour, which might be a modern outdoor record for him. Kuchar fatted a gap wedge into the water at No. 17, where he rescued a bogey. When Kuchar then struck an impure pitching wedge to the 18th, even caddie Lance Bennett blinked. That just doesn't happen to golf's ATM machine.

Order was restored, of course, when Kuchar saved par nicely, one of only two on his back nine and seven overall against seven birdies and four bogeys. Different indeed. But so is he. Kuchar would love to register his biggest PGA TOUR conquest yet on Mother's Day, because mother Meg has been such a positive influence on his positive attitude. But, to hear her talk, she doesn't need a trophy to feel proud.

"A woman at the Masters just came up to me," said Meg, strolling outside the ropes at the Stadium Course. "Out of nowhere, she just came up to me. And she thanked me for sharing Matt with the world."

After a family doubles tennis match in the morning -- Matt's wife Sybi was once the No. 1 player at their alma mater, Georgia Tech -- Kuchar went out to perform in what father Peter calls "another home game." Matt and Sybi and their family reside in Sea Island, Ga., which is not far away. Nor is the Orlando area where Peter and Meg met in college and settled. Peter should talk home games. He and Meg now live near here, and when he walks from hole to hole following his son, Peter might as well be mayor. Who exactly has the entourage, Matt or his Dad?

"I'm the competitive one, and Meg was always the one urging Matt to conduct himself well, and behave," said Peter. "So, I would like to think Matt took a little from each of us."

When Matt won the U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill outside Chicago in 1997, Peter was on the bag. Also, in 1998 at the Masters, where Matt was paired with Tiger Woods, and again at the U.S. Open, where Matt impressed with a tie for 14th, "Matt was a sophomore at Tech at that stage," recalled Peter. "He wasn't about to pay for a caddie."

With galleries chanting "KOOOCH!!" repeatedly, Matt was able to percolate despite the misfortunes of playing partner Harris English, whose first tee ball beaned a marshal. While the man was tended to by medics on wheels, English came over to apologize and Kuchar followed, thanking the volunteer effusively for his efforts. Although bloody about the scalp, the patient looked up as he was being wrapped in a bandage and -- what else? -- smiled. Kuchar is not only genuine. He's contagious.

English tripled No. 2, doubled No. 5, and by the time they reached the No. 6, there was a hole and a half open. As a rules official duly noted, the twosome was having "issues." English took 42 issues on the front nine, but Kuchar did not join in the meltdown. He birdied both par 5s, the latter after he made birdie on the difficult par-3 eighth. At No. 10, he bombed a drive of 304 yards toward another birdie. He birdied Nos. 12 and 13 after a bogey at the 11th, a par 5. His par at No. 16 was his first since No. 7, but No. 16 is a par 5 that should be birdied.

"I'm normally a guy who makes a lot of pars, stays out of trouble," said Kuchar. "But I knew this morning that this golf course was going to be real difficult today."

The Bank of Kuchar has been bullish this season in a mixed economy. He has made 10 cuts in as many tournaments, with four top-10s and seven top-25s. In only one event did he finish over par. But this represents good business as usual: 16 of 27 cuts in 2008, 18 of 24 in 2009, 23 of 26 in 2010 and 22 of 24 in 2011. Starting in 2008, he has 34 top-10s. Kuchar almost won the Masters, and when that happens, he'll be a natural for the late-night TV circuit. He could handle David Letterman's top-10 routine while blindfolded.

Kuchar recently aligned with Mark Steinberg, the super-agent for Tiger Woods. Another pending item of interest for Kuchar would be joining the United States Ryder Cup team in September. He played for the flag in 2010; he had a ball representing America at the 2011 Presidents Cup in Australia. Davis Love III, his Sea Island neighbor, will be the captain. And Medinah Country Club is not all that far from Cog Hill. There's a certain symmetry here, no?

"Obviously, I want to be on our team very badly," Kuchar said. "But at this point, I can't make it the focus of what I'm trying to do. Now, I have to think about winning here."

On Sunday at 2:45 p.m., Kuchar and Na will let it fly in the closing twosome. That leaves a lot of time to kill on Mother's Day morning, and this is a family that stays happy by staying busy. Anyone for tennis?

"Oh, yeah," said Matt. "I think so."

Bob Verdi is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.