Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 20, 2014

Agony To Ecstasy, Smiling All The Way

Matt Kuchar stood on the tee of the par-3 17th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links Sunday afternoon, apparently headed for his seventh PGA Tour victory. Just a week earlier the 35-year old American had been picked by many to finally capture his first major when he began the final round of the Masters in the next to last pairing, just one stroke off the lead held jointly by Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth. Kuchar birdied two of the first three holes to briefly tie Spieth for the lead at 6-under par. But a disastrous four-putt double bogey at the par-3 4th hole sent him back down the leader board, and he wound up tied for fifth place, six shots behind winner Watson.

In the wake of that disappointing finish Kuchar made the short drive from Augusta down to the Georgia coast and Hilton Head Island, still one of the pros on the dreaded short list of “best players who have never won a major.” Yet if it lacks the cachet of one of the top four tournaments, Kuchar’s resume is still impressive. His victories include wins at the Players Championship, the Match Play, and the Memorial, all prestige events with strong fields. He also won the Barclays in 2010, one of the four season-ending FedEx Cup playoff events, and has three top-10 finishes at the Masters. For all that at the start of the Heritage’s final round he was little more than an afterthought, four shots adrift of 54-hole leader Luke Donald.

Englishman Donald found trouble early in the final round, even as Kuchar stormed out of the gate. The American needed just 30 strokes to cover the front nine at Harbour Town, and a birdie at the par-4 10th hole took him to 7-under for the day and 11-under for the tournament. With Donald making double-bogey on the 6th hole and a bogey on the 10th, Kuchar was suddenly three shots clear. Donald fought back with birdies at the 11th and 12th holes, but as both golfers put together a string of pars on Harbour Town’s back nine, Kuchar remained in front.

So he stood on the 17th tee, knowing that two more pars would allow him to post a score that Donald could match only by somehow finding a birdie on the closing stretch. For sixteen holes the Low Country links wanders through the pines and palmettos of Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Resort, the narrow fairways tracking through neighborhoods of expensive homes. Finally at the 17th the course turns toward the open water of Calibogue Sound. The short 17th and the challenging par-4 finishing hole are both exposed to the wind that can come whipping off that broad expanse of water, and Sunday afternoon the flags atop the spectator boxes were at full attention.

But Kuchar seemed unfazed by the elements. He drilled an iron off the tee, his ball boring through the breeze and landing on the peak of the lengthy green then rolling down towards the hole. By the time the ball stopped the tournament leader was left with just a four footer for a birdie that would double his lead and likely seal the victory.

Despite making a mess of things at the 4th hole at Augusta one week earlier, Kuchar is one of the better putters on the Tour. He regularly ranks in the top twenty players in the Tour’s Total Putting statistic and in the top ten in Three Putt Avoidance. In a post-round interview he said that he saw the short putt breaking right, and was surprised when playing partner Brian Harman’s putt along the same line broke left. Perhaps he was unsettled by the difference between his view of the green and the roll of Harman’s ball. Perhaps the gusting wind that left his pant legs flapping was distracting. Whatever the cause, Kuchar’s birdie putt never scared the hole, rolling more than three feet past. As surprising as that was, the greater shock for spectators came when the par putt coming back barely grazed the edge of the cup. In seconds what had appeared to be a certain birdie had become a bogey that dropped Kuchar into a tie with Donald.

The stunning three-putt set off a round of second guessing by the CBS announcers, who were quick to remind viewers of Kuchar’s recent failures late in tournaments. In addition to the Masters meltdown, he had been runner-up at the Texas Open then lost a playoff at the Byron Nelson in the weeks leading up to Augusta. As his drive split the fairway of the 472 yard 18th, fans watching on television were informed that Kuchar had played the final hole of his last six Sunday rounds in four over par. That dire reminder seemed alarmingly appropriate when his 5-iron from 177 yards got caught in the breeze and fell short of the green into the front of the large bunker that guards the final putting surface at Harbour Town. A loud groan went up from the large gallery around the home hole as the popular Kuchar seemed on the verge of once again coming up short of victory.

No matter the sport, every athlete handles adversity in his or her own way. Some blame themselves, while others assign fault to the gods. Many will say that they can shake off a bad hole or play or slump, but actually doing so is another matter. Yet as Kuchar walked up to the 18th green, he was smiling and casually clapping his hands together while chatting with his caddie. He hardly looked like a golfer in the middle of a meltdown. Since beginning work with sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante four years ago Kuchar has focused on remaining relentlessly positive on the course, and Sunday was no exception. As they arrived at the green he told his caddie “Well, there are a lot worse places to be.”

Twenty yards separated the ball in the bunker from the 18th hole. Kuchar opened his sand wedge wide and took a full, fluid swing. The ball exploded out of the sand, landed halfway to the hole, and rolled straight and true until it disappeared into the cup for the winning birdie three.

For the next twenty minutes, as Luke Donald and the remaining contenders completed their rounds, CBS showed the winning shot over and over, perhaps hoping that the repetition would cause viewers to forget their dark pronouncements portending a Kuchar collapse. With a seventh PGA Tour victory safely recorded, Matt Kuchar can look back at the last several weeks and lament his failings. Or he can review the same period and regard himself as the most consistent player on the PGA Tour.  It’s not hard to guess which perspective the golfer who always seems to be smiling will choose.

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