Kuchar smiles, and grinds, his way to a signature PLAYERS win

May 13, 2012
Larry Dorman

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It didn't seem to matter much to Matt Kuchar whether it was an early 66 by Luke Donald, three straight birdies by Martin Laird to tie the lead, four straight birdies by Ben Curtis, a strong 68 by Zach Johnson or a flurry of two birdies on the last three holes by Rickie Fowler.


Nothing, but nothing -- not his opening three-putt bogey at No. 1, nor his second and final three-putt bogey at No. 17 -- could shake Kuchar in the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday. He had worked too hard, come too far and played too well to lose his nerve at crunch time.

So it was that, after Kuchar had passed the faltering 54-hole leader Kevin Na to take the lead at the eighth hole, he never relinquished it. He was tied once. He missed a couple of fairways on the front nine and a couple on the back nine. But he didn't miss any must-make shots, he didn't make any big mistakes, and he won the biggest tournament of his life on one of the most difficult courses in golf to keep a lead.

At the age of 33, with his wife, Sybi, his two sons, Cameron and Carson, his parents Peter and Meg and many friends in attendance, one of golf's most engaging players showed everyone just how tough he can be inside the ropes. He shot a final-round 70 for a 13-under 275, two strokes clear of Laird (67), Johnson (68), Fowler (70) and Curtis (68). He missed just three greens early, and hit his last 13 in a row, and smiled broadly as he shut down every potential challenge, finding it all, well, quite thrilling.

"It's an amazing feeling to beat the field at THE PLAYERS Championship," he said an hour after he parred the final hole to become the first American since Phil Mickelson in 2007 to win it. "You think of this as one of the strongest fields in golf, and to come out as a champion is truly an amazing, amazing feeling."

In his victory speech after the win, and during his news conference following, he twice referenced the flood of feelings that wash over him each time he walks through the clubhouse where pictures of all the former PLAYERS adorn the walls of a walkway leading to the locker room at the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass.

"I think one of the things that strikes me is walking every day through the champion's tunnel," said Kuchar, who moved to sixth in the FedExCup standings with the win. "Every player does it. And for me, I can't help but stop and gaze at all the photos going through champions tunnel, and to think I'm going to be a part of that with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd and Phil Mickelson and David Duval and Tiger Woods, it's all the best of the best.

"To feel like I'm going to see my picture up there next year is pretty cool."

If you're tempted to dismiss this as just a bunch of feel-good platitudes from an over-stimulated winner, you might want to reconsider. Kuchar has smiled his way around golf courses ever since he was a junior player in Winter Park, Fla., and during his college years at Georgia Tech, and during and after his U.S. Amateur victory in 1997, and his first Masters appearance in 1998.

In the final round of the 2012 PLAYERS Championship, Matt Kuchar shoots a final-round 70 to claim his fourth win on the PGA TOUR.

He also smiled on Sunday on the 16th green, as he did a low fist-pump to celebrate his birdie putt that fell right after Fowler had charged up the throngs on the hillside at the 17th with his birdie to pull within two strokes of Kuchar. He had watched Fowler's heroics unfold before he putted.

"I was pretty excited to stick it right back to Rickie," Kuchar said, and he wasn't kidding. "That was pretty awesome. Yeah, absolutely. I saw the putt. I actually had my eye watching it to see the break a little bit. I had an angle, was pretty much putting straight down towards me, so watched the thing disappear and he gave a big fist pump. I knew it got him to within two shots and he could birdie 18 to bring it within one.

"That could have changed the whole scenario of how I would have approached and played 18. So I was really excited to drop that birdie on 16. That was big."

Like most of the players on the PGA TOUR, Kuchar lives for the competition, for the thrill of the hunt in the thick of the competition on the weekend. When he says he enjoyed sticking it right back at Rickie, he's just telling it like it is. When Kuchar was still on the golf course at 13 under and Laird was the clubhouse leader at 11 under, he revealed the competitive side.

"Kooch is hitting it really good right now," Laird said. "You don't ever want to wish anything bad on him, but we'll just have to wait and see. It doesn't matter how good you're playing these last holes will get into your mind."

The last holes were not enough to derail Kuchar's march to the title. They were in his mind, but not in a way that would rattle him. With a birdie at 16, a bogey at 17 and a par at 18, he had done exactly what he needed to do, and that he did it with a smile on his face made it all the more special.

"It's completely a natural reaction," he said. "I love playing the game of golf. I have fun doing it. I am a golf junkie. I have to force myself to take vacations where the clubs don't make it. The game is just always so challenging, and I think it's the challenge that's addictive to me. To have something to try to get better at. There's no end to all the different avenues in golf where you can try to get better."

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