Age is only a number for Matt Kuchar, an elite player who is still chasing a Major breakthrough, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
The curse continued in 2017 but will it apply in 2018?
The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass is referred to as the ‘fifth Major’ among the men. And how the lives of so many would have changed forever if they had five Majors on the annual calendar, like the women do.
Victory for Si Woo Kim in 2017 saw him shoot up the World Ranking to No 28 and provided renewed hope that he was at the forefront of the Asian arrival on the Major scene. His subsequent best result in four Majors was a tie for 14th at the US Open and as defending champion he comes into this year’s Players ranked 39th.
Jason Day, the 2016 winner, was No 1 in the world at the time, but he has subsequently slipped outside the world’s top 10 and hasn’t looked to add to his tally of Major wins.
Rickie Fowler won in 2015, but is still waiting to convert all that potential and hope into a ‘real’ Major. In 2013 Tiger Woods won his second Players, but hasn’t won a Major since 2009, so even for one of the greatest players of all time, Sawgrass was the last time victory came on a big stage. KJ Choi (2011) and Tim Clark (2010) are past winners whose best races have been run and for them Sawgrass will be as good as it gets.
Of course, there are always exceptions. For instance, Henrik Stenson won in 2009 and then claimed his first Major seven years later at The Open. And Sergio Garcia, winner in 2008, went on to take the Green Jacket at The Masters in 2017.
Which brings us to the 2012 champion, Matt Kuchar. It’s approaching a decade that the popular American has been one of the elite golfers in the game. He broke into the top 20 in 2010 and, ironically, one of the few occasions he has slipped out of it was in 2012 when he won The Players and yet ended the year ranked 21 in the world. And as at the middle of April, he was ranked 21, although he has been as high as No 4.
He’s now pushing 40 – June marks that milestone – and perhaps, just perhaps, given the number of twenty and thirtysomethings ahead of him in the queue to No 1 and winning Majors, victory at the ‘fifth Major’ in 2012 is going to be the closest he ever gets to winning one of the ‘Big Four’. However, he will take heart from Stenson and Garcia, who cracked their first Major nut several years after triumphing at Sawgrass.
In truth, though, Kuchar would have already been a Major champion had it not been for one of the most brilliant shots ever produced on the big occasion by Jordan Spieth.
You’ll remember it as if it was yesterday. Kuchar and Spieth were tied on eight under after 12 holes in the final round at Royal Birkdale when Spieth hit a filthy drive into an unplayable lie way right on the 13th. A full 17 and a half minutes elapsed and Spieth eventually played his third shot blind, from among trailers and camera equipment. He hit it perfectly and escaped with a bogey, to slip only one behind. The gods were walking with him that day and he went on to lift the Claret Jug.
‘What an incredible day. Matt and I enjoyed the battle. It could have gone to either one of us, and I got the breaks today. What a great champion Matt Kuchar is, and what a class act. I took about 20 minutes to play one of my shots. Matt took it in his stride and smiled, and there’s not many people who would have done that. It speaks to the kind of man you are, and you set an example to all of us,’ Spieth said as the world digested one of golf’s miracles.
Kuchar is one of the most popular men on the circuit and whenever he plays a shot it’s often accompanied by the crowd shouting, ‘Kuuuuuch’, which can sound a bit like ‘Boooo’, although the sentiments couldn’t be further apart. South Africans will remember crowd favourites like Mark Fish ‘Feeeeesh’ and Matthew Booth ‘Booooooth’. In the latter’s case there would be many foreign to the local game who must have wondered why on earth the national captain received such treatment.
At the 2017 Masters Kuchar aced the par-three 16th, spinning the ball back towards the hole close to the water, but dropping into the cup. He plucked the ball out and gave it to a young boy in the crowd. ‘One of the cool parts of our job is to bring a smile to kids’ faces,’ he said. ‘For me that golf ball is not a keepsake, but it could brighten up his day and maybe we’ll see him back here playing in a couple of years.’
Going into this year’s Masters, Kuchar was becoming ever aware of that most unwanted tag … getting close to being called ‘the best man to have not won a Major’. That is not a millstone that can be hung around the neck when you’re in your twenties and thirties but the clock seems to tick ever faster when it strikes the Big 4-O.
‘It’s hard to believe it was 20 years ago that I first played here,’ he said after round two at Augusta. ‘I thought about that yesterday, when we started late and we were all playing well. We came to 18 in the late afternoon, and the shadows were long, and I flashed back 20 years to walking up late in the day with my dad, Peter, on the bag. It was such a cool thing and I couldn’t help but remember it yesterday. It was a nice memory.’
Kuchar turned professional in 2002 at the age of 24, and immediately made an impression, winning the Honda Classic, before hitting a dip for the next three years. He then hired Dubliner Chris O’Connell as his coach and hasn’t looked back.
‘I’ve become a much better player since I started working with Chris and each year I’ve gotten better. I take great pride in my consistency on the golf course. Back in the day I could play great, win and miss cuts. Now I take pride, don’t miss many cuts and have a lot of chances to win. He’s a big part of that.’ The pair have combined for six PGA Tour wins and there are surely more that will come out of that bag.
One of his close friends is Zach Johnson, a two-time Major champion, the last time coming when he won The Open at the age of 39.
That will provide Kuchar and his legion of fans with some comfort, knowing that there’s still time to be the exception to The Players Championship rule, which appears to be that of the graveyard of future Major champions.
– This article first appeared in the May issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale!