Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 15, 2018

Proof The Older Guys Are Good Too

The date is April 20, 2014. One week ago, Bubba Watson won his second green jacket, claiming the Masters by three strokes over Sweden’s Jonas Blixt and a 20-year-old American named Jordan Spieth, who was playing at Augusta National for the very first time. Watson and Spieth entered the final round tied for the lead, and at one point the young challenger moved two shots clear, threatening to eclipse Tiger Woods as the youngest winner of every golf season’s first major. But Watson reeled Spieth in over the tournament’s final nine holes, winning with a fine final round of 69 and an 8-under par total of 281.

Englishman Lee Westwood, long a star of the European Tour, finished in seventh place at 1-under, the last golfer to break par in a week in which Augusta National proved resistant to scoring. Westwood wasted no time in Georgia after signing his scorecard, winging halfway around to world to tee it up this week at the Maybank Malaysian Open, an event co-sanctioned by the Asian and European Tours. He is just days shy of his forty-first birthday but appears unfazed by either age or jet lag. Westwood took the lead on Thursday with an opening 65, and now coasts to a seven-shot victory over Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen. It is his twenty-third European Tour triumph. The win moves Westwood, who once topped the Official World Golf Rankings, back into the top thirty.

Many time zones away and hours after Westwood has lifted his trophy, the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage is nearing its climax. Unlike the peripatetic Westwood most of the finishers at the Masters have traveled less than 150 miles southeast to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Here at the very tip of the barrier island, Harbour Town Golf Links is the long-time site of the Heritage. It’s a Tour stop familiar to casual golf fans by the candy-striped lighthouse that sits across an inlet behind the 18th green and for the red plaid jacket given to the winner, an article of clothing even more garish than that won by Watson seven days ago.

The final round of the Heritage begins with Luke Donald in the lead, but thirty-five-year-old Matt Kuchar makes six birdies on the front nine to turn for home in just 30 strokes, then adds another at the par-4 10th hole to seize the lead. Kuchar and Donald battle on from there, until a three-putt bogey at the 17th drops the popular American back into a tie with England’s former world number one. Playing ahead of Donald, Kuchar puts his approach at the home hole into a bunker fronting Harbour Town’s final green, meaning he now needs to get up and down to save par and remain tied. Instead Kuchar’s sand shot lands softly and rolls straight and true, dead into the cup for a birdie. When Donald comes home with a string of pars, Kuchar has his seventh PGA Tour title and at number five, is solidly ensconced in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings.

Like Westwood, Kuchar presaged his win by playing well at the Masters, where he finished tied with Rickie Fowler for fifth place, six shots adrift of Watson and one clear of Westwood. So this weekend’s two winners, one in Kuala Lumpur and the other in South Carolina share not just a victory on their respective home Tours, but a good performance at Augusta National, a solid world ranking, and one decidedly less desirable distinction, a spot high on the list of best golfers who have never won a major.

The date is November 11, 2018. More than four years have passed since the events described above, and in all that time two things have not happened. Matt Kuchar has not won a PGA Tour event, and Lee Westwood has not triumphed on the European Tour. Neither has been entirely shut out. Kuchar topped the field at the Fiji International, a PGA Tour of Australasia event, in 2015, while Westwood won Asian Tour tournaments later in 2014 and again early in 2015. But that the success of both on their home Tours would suddenly stop could hardly have been foreseen on that spring Sunday four and a half years ago.

Kuchar, who began 2018 still ranked fifteenth, suffered through a particularly miserable season. He recorded just four top-10 finishes, missed three cuts in five tournaments from the U.S. Open to the PGA Championship, and was forced to watch the Ryder Cup from the sidelines as an assistant captain after qualifying for the American Ryder and Presidents Cup squads seven years in a row. Westwood’s slide, as he moved into his mid-forties, has been more gradual but also more sustained, the product of the slow erosion of skills that time inevitably imposes on every athlete.

The one certainty for both golfers was that little was expected of either this week, when Kuchar teed it up at the PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic south of Cancun, Mexico, and Westwood began play at the European Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa. But as play unfolded in the final rounds of both tournaments the two veterans turned back the clock, doing so by swapping the roles each had played four seasons earlier.

This time it was Kuchar who took command of the tournament, opening with a 7-under par 64 that was good for a share of the lead. He matched that score on Friday, and nearly did so again with Saturday’s 65, giving himself a four-shot cushion for the final round. On this Sunday the now forty-year-old needed all that edge, as he turned shaky with a pair of bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes. But Kuchar steadied himself and parred in, holing a final nervy putt from three feet at the last to keep Danny Lee at bay.

On the European Tour it was Westwood’s turn to come charging through the field as the weekend came to a close. He began the day three shots back of Sergio Garcia, the leader from the tournament’s start. But neither Garcia nor anyone else could match Westwood’s stellar play over the final 18 holes. With an eagle three at the par-5 2nd hole and six birdies from there to the clubhouse, Westwood’s closing 64 vaulted him past his competitors to a three-shot victory.

There is of course no cosmic connection between these two golfers. It is but coincidence that the pair won on the same day this week, after also doing so in their previous home Tour wins more than four years earlier. But in a sport that like so many other of our games is increasingly dominated by youth, where the current flavor of the month is monstrously long-hitting twenty-three-year-old Cameron Champ, the twin wins by Kuchar and Westwood reminded us that golf will always be a game for life. Surely neither of the two thought their 2014 wins would be their last. And just as surely, over the long months since, doubts crept into both their minds. Westwood’s raw emotion after winning Sunday was proof of that. But now, once again, both Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood can turn their thoughts to the next victory.

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Responses

  1. Everybody likes a come-back story and you made this one come alive, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks very much Allan. Both Kuchar and Westwood have always been generous in their interactions with golf fans, making them quite popular. The obviously coincidental but entirely beautiful timing of their returns pretty much wrote itself.

      M-


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