PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Matt Kuchar said he moved on. That he didn’t tee off Thursday in the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship seeking to make amends for his last trip through TPC Sawgrass.
Still, his performance certainly was an impressive bounce-back round … even if it took 12 months.
Kuchar’s 6-under 66 left him in a six-way tie for the lead after the first round. He’s the only defending champ in a group that includes Webb Simpson, Alex Noren, Chesson Hadley, Patrick Cantlay and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
A year ago, Kuchar shot a third-round 9-over 81 in which he suffered a quintuple bogey and two double bogeys. It was the second-highest score of his career, eclipsed only by the 82 he shot at Castle Pines 15 years ago.
In between those two rounds, he’s won THE PLAYERS (in 2012) along with six other TOUR events and a boatload of Top-10 finishes (93 to be exact). And in between his last two rounds at TPC Sawgrass, he quickly let go of the 81 that prevented him from making the secondary cut for Sunday.
“Amazing the game of golf, how short your memory has to be,” Kuchar said after a Thursday round that included six birdies and an eagle at the par-5 11th. “I tee it up the very next week and we all started even par. So It’s something that I think is great about the game. It’s easy to move on.”
He recalled the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah when he was a member of the U.S. team that suffered a devastating loss. He found it therapeutic to make his next start and let go of the pain.
“It was kind of nice to move on,” Kuchar said. “… What you did last week, nobody really cares about anymore. It’s all about what you’re doing at the moment.”
At the moment, he's co-leading THE PLAYERS. It's a much better spot than a year ago.
Will defending champ finally win?
History does not favor Si Woo Kim this week.
No champion of THE PLAYERS Championship has successfully defended in the 44 years of the tournament. The best result by a defending champ are the T-5s posted by Jack Nicklaus (1977), Tom Kite (1990) and Hal Sutton (2001).
More to the point, the defending champ rarely finds himself in contention, and is more apt to miss the cut. Since Sutton’s result, the last 16 results by the defending PLAYERS champ includes four missed cuts, a WD, a DNP and just one top-10 finish – by Adam Scott, who tied for eighth in 2005.
A year ago, Jason Day tied for 60th after shooting a final-round 80. Meanwhile, Kim became the youngest champ in PLAYERS history, winning by three strokes.
It was an unexpected victory – and Kim continued to produce the unexpected Thursday. His 5-under 67 is the lowest opening score by a defending champ since the tournament moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982. Had he not stumbled down the stretch with bogeys in two of his last three holes, he would’ve been the first-round leader.
“I played great,” said the 22-year-old Korean, who began his round off the 10th tee and was a bogey-free 7 under for his first 14 holes. “… I liked the score in the first round, but I can hit it better.”
Day arrived at TPC Sawgrass in 2017 still dealing with issues involving his mother’s battle with cancer. It did not leave him in the proper frame of mind to defend, but he also acknowledged that it’s difficult to defend in a tournament that produces the best field of the season.
“This tournament is heightened,” he said. “The level of it just goes up every single year. I think it gets closer and closer to a major championship feel every single year that we play, and I feel like a lot of the guys think that it’s a major championship.”
And just like a major, there are few successful defenses. The last one came at the Open Championship in 2008 when Padraig Harrington won at Royal Birkdale. Since the end of World War II, a total of 289 majors have been played – and the defending champ has won just 14 times, a success rate of less than 5 percent.
Of course, that’s still better than the zero percent for defending PLAYERS champ.
Asked after his round Thursday about what it would mean to be the first player to achieve that feat, Kim replied, “I feel like it would be dreaming, but that’s too hard. This is just the first round. I’m going to keep working hard.”
Probably a wise move. Not only is he battling the best field in golf, he’s battling history.
Surprised that 51-year-old Steve Stricker is in the hunt after an opening 67? He's not. "I feel like I'm capable of putting up a round like this," he said. "I'm disappointed that I bogeyed 8 and didn't birdie 9." The 67 ties for his lowest score in his 65 career rounds at TPC Sawgrass.
Bubba Watson has made 10 starts at TPC Sawgrass. His best result was a T-37 in 2013. But his opening 68 – which ties for his lowest score in his last 21 rounds here – has him on personal-best pace. “Every time I come here, I’m just trying to beat 37,” Watson said. “I’m no good around this place. It’s very difficult for me because of the sights off the tee, some of the trees. It makes me fear hitting shots that I want to hit.” On Thursday he hit a respectable 10 fairways and 13 greens.
Rule, Britannia? The English group of Justin Rose (68), Tommy Fleetwood (69) and Ian Poulter (70) combined for 9 under. Neither Poulter nor Rose, the two veterans, could ever remember playing in an all-English threesome at a PGA TOUR event. “I was alerted by the TOUR maybe last week some time that they were thinking about that group,” Rose said. “It was exciting to hear it.” It’ll be even more exciting if at least one of them can remain in contention Sunday, especially since no Englishman has ever won THE PLAYERS.
Webb Simpson was among the attendees for a dinner local resident Jim Furyk hosted at his house Wednesday night for Ryder Cup hopefuls. Simpson is 23rd in the U.S. standings, but his 6-under 66 no doubt caught the captain’s attention. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do to get on the team, but it was nice to be there,” Simpson said.
Jordan Spieth opened bogey-bogey-eagle-double en route to a 3-over 75. It wasn’t as bad it looked, though. During one three-hole stretch, he said he “lost three strokes with a total of 6 feet in the landing zone” and added that other than two bad swings, he “played good golf and just didn’t get rewarded for it.”
Brooks Koepka, who recently returned to action after missing most of this year with an injured left wrist, re-aggravated the problem when he stopped in mid-swing during a practice session Wednesday in order to avoid a cart driver who had accidentally driven in front of him 15 yards away. “It’s the first time my strength actually backfired, to be strong enough to actually stop it,” said Koepka, who was hitting 3-iron stingers to practice for shots needed at the 18th hole. “He would’ve been dead. It was perfect timing.” Koepka iced the wrist overnight, then shot a bogey-free 2-under 70.
QuotablesNobody does kind of slightly overweight middle-aged guy better than me.My cut-to-top-6 ratio is pretty good.It’s hard not to have a smile on your face when you shoot 5 under at this place.I really don’t think I have anything to work on this afternoon. I think it’s time to go to the beach with the kids.
Low Round: 66 – Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Alex Noren, Chesson Hadley, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Cantlay.
Hardest hole: The infamous par-3 island green averaged at 3.264. There were 21 birdies, 92 pars, 10 bogeys, 17 doubles and four others. Hideki Matsuyama took an eight after putting two balls in the water.
Easiest hole: The 309-yard par-4 12th hole averaged 3.556 with seven eagles, 63 birdies, 61 pars and just 13 bogeys.
CALL OF THE DAY
For play-by-play coverage of Round 2 of THE PLAYERS Championship, listen from 1 p.m. - 7 p.m. ET on PGATOUR.com.
SHOT OF THE DAY
Shot of the Day
Matt Kuchar's lengthy eagle putt for Shot of the Day