Kuchar Poised for Major Step

After some struggles during the early portion of his professional career, Matt Kuchar has proven that he is a threat to win every week he tees it up. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

After some struggles during the early portion of his professional career, Matt Kuchar has proven that he is a threat to win every week he tees it up. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

By Stuart Hall

VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – For more than a decade, Matt Kuchar was rarely in the conversation at major championships. He made only 17 appearances and his two best finishes were as the low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open in 1998 during a 12-year span.

In addition to not winning a major, Kuchar was seldom, if ever, in the lively discussion of who is the best player to never have won a major.

Then in October 2009, Kuchar won his second PGA Tour title, the Turning Stone Resort Championship, more than seven years after his first. The victory was a coming-of-age moment for Kuchar, then 31.

“You hear some of the veterans talk about kind of a learning curve out here and almost a 10-year learning curve before you really get comfortable in how to play golf on Tour,” said Kuchar, who joined the PGA Tour in 2001 and lost his playing privileges for a year in 2006. “I feel like I'm maturing and it seems like you get guys in their 40s who are playing some of the best golf of their lives, because of the maturity that is involved with the game of golf. So, I feel like I'm starting to enter that stage.”

Kuchar did not tiptoe into that stage, but asserted himself as a legitimate presence to win on a weekly basis and at the majors.

Less than a year after winning at Turning Stone, he won The Barclays en route to the 2010 PGA Tour scoring title. His 69.61 average was two strokes lower than his career high of 72.32 in 2003.

He has won four times since The Barclays, including The Players Championship in 2012 and the World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship and Memorial Tournament in 2013. Also, he has 46 top-10 finishes and just eight missed cuts in his 110 starts since the beginning of the 2010 season.

The more striking numbers have come in the majors. Kuchar went from having played only 35 percent of the 48 majors from 1998 through 2009 – and making just four cuts – to competing in all 17 majors in this decade, missing just one cut and posting six top-10 finishes, including a sixth-place U.S. Open finish in 2010 at Pebble Beach, his career-best so far. 

At Pinehurst, Kuchar was asked if the conversation about best player to never have won a major motivates him.

“I think I'm still new to that,” said Kuchar, currently No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I think it's great. If you haven't won a major, you sure want to be a part of that conversation. I'm happy I'm part of that conversation. But certainly [winning a major] is a goal of mine, it's a goal of everybody's. It's been a goal of mine since I started playing the game. So it remains there.

“I treat every tournament as a tournament I want to win. We all certainly put a little more meaning toward these major championships, but I showed up to the Memorial tournament two weeks ago with all intent to try to win that tournament. I come to U.S. Open this week at Pinehurst with the same intentions.”

While Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 was dramatically restored to Donald Ross’ original intent by the design firm of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2011, Kuchar has knowledge from his appearances in the two previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2 (1999 and 2005) to draw on.

“We know Pinehurst because of the greens,” he said. “The rest of it is changed, but I think the calling card to Pinehurst No. 2 is the greens. They remain the same. For some reason I had it in my mind that there were massive changes done, rerouting different holes. But the holes are the same; the greens are the same. The difference is there's waste instead of rough. But it's much like I remember.”

What Kuchar might like to forget are his finishes at No. 2, a pair of missed cuts and a combined score of 24-over par.

With his major finishes now trending upward, Kuchar appears to have the demeanor to handle the punches that a U.S. Open can pack.

“You're going to get beaten up,” he said. “It happens at U.S. Opens. It's one of the things that good shots aren't always rewarded, good shots are sometimes punished here. Patience certainly helps, because you let things like that get to you and they carry over. You have to accept that good shots aren't always going to be rewarded and that you have got to make the most with however it turns out.”

Kuchar still comes across as the affable kid with the beaming smile who won the 1998 U.S. Amateur, but that was not always the case.

“I started the game at 12 or 13 and I can remember throwing clubs and having a temper,” he said, “but I think as I matured and kind of became more the person I am, my temperament became much more easy going and accepting of things. In golf I think that it serves me well and certainly will be in full need this week.”

Possibly a week in which he may no longer be part of that “best to never” conversation should he win. 

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.

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