Kuchar's 'crushing' loss now serves as motivation
Second-place finish at Royal Birkdale in 2017 left a mark, but Kuchar remains resilient in majors
July 16, 2018
By Jeff Babineau, Special to PGATOUR.COM
- July 16, 2018
- Matt Kuchar finished second to Jordan Spieth at The Open Championship in 2017 at Royal Birkdale. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Matt Kuchar has a pact with his sons: If Dad wins a major, the Kuchars can get a dog. So, forget for one moment the heightened intensity that the family breadwinner was feeling as he went mano a mano against Jordan Spieth on a cool, blustery Sunday at the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale a year ago. Just think of the waves of emotions churning through those two young boys, who’d flown through the night from Colorado to England with their mother, Sybi, just to be standing off the 18th green to surprise dear ol’ Dad.
“I know the last four hours of the day, the boys were picking out names (for the dog),” said Peter Kuchar, father of Matt and grandfather to Cameron, now 10, and Carson, 9. “That was rough ... They’d have probably named it Birkdale.”
Spieth would seize the Claret Jug with a finish for the ages, going from potential disaster (a tee shot completely off the grid at No. 13, where he salvaged a miraculous bogey) to sheer brilliance (5 under par over the next four holes, including a near-ace at 14 and a 50-footer for eagle one hole later). Kuchar, who’d carried a one-stroke lead to the 14th tee, played his next four holes nearly perfectly, making two birdies and two pars – and got lapped as if he were an Indy pace car.
Alas, the only puppy in the Kuchar household these days remains Matt. At 40 (Matt Kuchar is 40? Say it isn’t so!!), he still bounces through life as he did two decades earlier at Georgia Tech, textbooks tucked under his arm.
Every golfer carries with him a distinct identity. Arnie had the pants hitch and the go-for-broke rep. Ray Floyd could stare a hole through a ballwasher. Seve Ballesteros was the scrambling visionary. Tiger has that intimidating Sunday red. Kuchar? He forever will be defined by that permanent grin on his face, worn sometimes playfully and other times devilishly, as if he’d just pulled off a monumental prank on the school principal. He is constantly joking, incessantly jabbing. Even Phil Mickelson struggles to return Kuchar’s sharp needle.
Royal Birkdale, though, presented a different scene. Thirty minutes after the final putt, Kuchar’s cheeks remained bright rosy red as daylight began to wane and he was summoned to the press center. The smile was absent. He sat stunned. Gutted. At 39, and not knowing how many cracks he’ll get at landing that first major, Kuchar had thrown everything he had at Spieth, only to watch the wunderkind saunter off with that shiny jug, the kid’s third major at age 23. Kuchar graciously saluted his conqueror, but did so wearing the appearance of a guy who’d just caught a surprise hook to the chin.
“Crushing,” is how he'd describe it.
Tiger’s immortal words, in this instance, would prove spot-on: Yes, second does suck. History will show Spieth won by a comfortable cushion, three shots, but given Kuchar’s challenge to the very end, there was nothing comfortable about it. Each player had rebounded from a rough start on Sunday to close by shooting 1-under 69. (Spieth did so by coming home in 32.) Kuchar had a chance up until his approach at the par-4 18th one-hopped and plugged in a greenside bunker, from where, his tank emptied, he’d make a meaningless bogey.
Kuchar says there are times he wishes that the margin wasn’t as close as it was. Maybe then, losing might hurt less.
“Yeah, it stung,” Kuchar said, looking back months later. “Sure it did. I guess it was particularly hard having the lead so late. There is no telling how many more chances I'll have. Certainly, for a while, it looked like it was my time ... and then it wasn’t my time again.”
Kuchar’s inner camp was as deflated as he was. Peter and Meg Kuchar had endured an emotional day, shot by shot, on the home couch in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
“We watched, and died a slow death,” Peter said. “That one just got ripped out of his hands. As a golfer, you know that you don’t make 50-footers as routine (as Spieth did at No. 15, for eagle) and then follow it up with a 30-footer (for birdie at 16). That just doesn’t happen. Not to take anything away from Jordan – who is a great, great kid, and who has wonderful parents – but the golf gods were just looking down on him that day.
John Wood, Kuchar’s caddie since November 2015, said of Kuchar, “He really did everything he needed to do to win, and what he did usually does win. It’s a bitter taste ... a little bittersweet, thinking back on it. You wouldn’t trade the experience for anything – it was great, and that’s what you do it for – but it was a little bittersweet at the end, for sure.”
As Kuchar stood stoically on the 18th green, holding the runner-up’s Silver Salver as Spieth stood off his left shoulder cradling the Claret Jug as “champion golfer of the year,” Wood sat on a bench in the locker room, not yet having packed up Kuchar’s gear. It had been such an incredible day with so many highs, and then a sudden crash. Wood just sat, alone, his head buried in his hands, and sobbed.
“If that doesn’t sting,” Wood said nearly a year later, “then you probably shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.”
Spieth was asked a few weeks ago if, in his shining Open moment, he ever felt sorry for Kuchar, whom he considers a friend. The question caused him to pause.
“I don’t think I ever felt bad for him, but I feel like I stole something,” Spieth said. “Not necessarily stole it from him, but I just kind of felt like I stole that one. I didn’t really have it that day, and somehow I just found it. That’s my easiest way of explaining it.”Matt Kuchar hits a tee shot at Royal Birkdale during the final round of The Open Championship in 2017. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Peter Kuchar remembers his son’s first club championship at Heathrow Country Club in Lake Mary, Florida, about 30 minutes north of Orlando. Matt was 15, still getting his feet under him as a golfer, and was competing against seasoned members more than twice his age. He led by a shot with two holes to play, then watched as his opponent finished birdie-birdie to clip him.
“I know he walked off that 18th green a little dazed, thinking he had that one in the bag,” Peter Kuchar said. “But things like that ultimately make you stronger. I think days like that one taught him how to win, and what it takes.”
Matt didn’t win much as a junior, but he won six tournaments at Georgia Tech, where he was a four-time All-American. Only David Duval (eight victories) won more.
Kuchar has seven PGA TOUR titles, including THE PLAYERS Championship in 2012, while gaining a reputation as one of the game’s most consistent players. He has qualified for the FedExCup Playoffs in all 11 seasons of the FedExCup. He’s qualified for the TOUR Championship in his old college town of Atlanta for eight consecutive years.
Kuchar will head to Carnoustie with some hope, even if his form hasn’t been altogether sharp. He arrives in Scotland ranked 79th in this season’s FedExCup standings.
The firm, fast conditions of an Open Championship will help to close the distance gap between Kuchar (T165 in driving distance at 289.0 yards) and the game’s bombers. Earlier this decade, Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson all collected Open titles in their 40s. So there’s that. Also, Kuchar has a high golf IQ, so solving the puzzle that is links golf is something that suits him, even if his Open record before last July at Birkdale wasn’t stellar. (Kuchar’s best previous finish had been a tie for ninth, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2012).
“Kooch can hit a lot of drivers, and if he’s hitting his driver well, he’s out there where most everybody else is hitting their 3-woods,” explains Wood. “The rest of his game is so strong, so solid, and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Give him that playing field where he’s playing from where everyone else is playing (off the tee), and it should set up really well for him.”Matt Kuchar hugged his two sons following the final round of The Open Championship in 2017. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Carnoustie will mark Kuchar’s 50th career major, and he is coming off his best year at the game’s Grand Slam events. In addition to his runner-up showing at the Open in 2017, he tied for fourth at the Masters (remember his Sunday ace at 16?) and tied for ninth at the PGA. ("My best year by a long shot," he said.)
Kuchar said he is as surprised as anyone by one bothersome factoid: he hasn't won a tournament in more than four years. His last PGA TOUR triumph was at the RBC Heritage the week following the 2014 Masters. As Birkdale proved, it’s not easy to win on the PGA TOUR with today's depth of talent.
“To not win since 2014, I’m disappointed in that stat as well,” he said. “But I feel that the thing you work on in the game of golf is always trying to improve. I feel I’m a better player, even though the wins haven’t come.
“As a player, as a competitor, you always want more. You always think there should be more, that you should be better. I look back at seven wins and I think that number is probably low for what I’d like it to be. But I look at the quality of wins (THE PLAYERS, a World Golf Championship and FedExCup Playoffs event), and the places I was able to win. I’m certainly very proud of that.”
Walking off the 18th green after finishing 72 holes at Birkdale last summer, Kuchar was crestfallen that he hadn’t collected victory No. 8, which would have been the biggest of them all. He had left everything out there on the course and had nothing to second-guess. One player was better. As Kuchar departed the final green, he looked up to see his whole world standing there – Sybi, a tennis player he’d met in his days at Tech, and their boys, Cameron and Carson. He’d just talked to them all a day earlier, and they were in Colorado, so this was an unexpected surprise. Cameron was in tears, and dad, his own eyes reddened, knelt down and soothed him with some calming words. It was an emotional end to what had been an emotional day for everyone.
Shortly before the tournament finished, Peter Kuchar had texted Sybi to let her know how proud he was that she and the boys had made such an effort to be there in England.
“I knew he’d need a hug, one way or the other,” she texted back.
Four days later, her husband picked himself up and was back to work at the RBC Canadian Open. He’ll keep his head down and continue to work on his game, hoping that one day soon, he's going to land that puppy.