Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 17, 2019

Matt Kuchar’s Second Act Is A Great One

It was just two months ago that this space was devoted to a pair of forty-something professional golfers who broke long victory droughts on the PGA and European Tours on the same Sunday. By sheer coincidence, both Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood had recorded his previous win on their respective home Tour on the same day more than four and one-half years earlier. At the time it felt like the fluke timing presented an opportunity to highlight a pair of greatly accomplished golfers, each of whom ranks very high on the dreaded list of “best who have never won a major.” It was easy to think of both Kuchar and Westwood as players entering the latter stage of their competitive careers on the regular tour, each perhaps turning at least one eye to some years hence when he turns fifty and can start competing with the seemingly ageless Bernhard Langer on the very lucrative Champions Tour.

But at least for his part Kuchar made it plain last Sunday that he isn’t just waiting around to start his second act on the senior tour. Rising above a predictably fast but dubiously factual Twitter furor over an unsourced claim that he stiffed the local caddie who was on his bag when he seized control of the Mayakoba Golf Classic right out of the gate in November, Kuchar came close to doing the same thing (owning the tournament from the start, not purportedly dissing his looper) at Waialea Country Club on the outskirts of Honolulu, site of the Sony Open in Hawaii. While the PGA Tour’s wraparound season started last October, the Sony, played on the nearly century-old Seth Raynor layout bordered by palm trees and the blue Pacific has long been the first full-field event of every calendar year.

Having suffered through a miserable 2018 campaign, Kuchar didn’t come close to qualifying for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, played the previous week on Maui and limited to tournament winners from the prior season. But that didn’t stop him from committing to the Sony, in part because he and his family, like pretty much everyone else who’s ever been there, love spending time in Hawaii. So there he was teeing it up on Thursday, and promptly posting a 7-under 63, only two shots adrift of first round leader Adam Svensson and one back of Andrew Putnam. One day later he matched that number despite recording his first bogey of the tournament, the only blemish on his card until Sunday’s final round. Kuchar’s 14-under total moved him into the lead, one clear of Putnam at the Sony’s midpoint.

A 4-under par 66 on Saturday extended his lead to two over the 29-year-old Putnam and four over fellow veteran Chez Reavie and 27-year-old Keith Mitchell, whose 63 was tied for the best round of the day. Like every other sport the PGA Tour has tilted younger in recent years, with seven of the top ten players in this week’s world rankings under the age of 30. Thus it would have been no surprise, indeed almost expected, if Putnam or Mitchell had gone low on Sunday to wrest the tournament from Kuchar’s grasp; despite the reality that between them the pair have but a single PGA Tour win – Putnam’s victory at last summer’s Reno-Tahoe Open – compared to Kuchar’s eight Tour wins and $45 million in career earnings.

Perhaps the thought of something like that happening, or just sheer incredulity at the prospect of winning for the second time in just his third start of the season, got to Kuchar’s 40-year-old nerves at the start of Sunday’s final round. Whatever the cause, after bogeying just one hole through the first fifty-four, he was over par on three of the first five holes. It was a start bad enough to erase his lead and leave him one behind playing partner Putnam. He was in danger of drifting another shot further away on the par-5 9th after playing an indifferent third shot from a greenside bunker while Putnam had a tap-in birdie. But Kuchar holed his ten-footer to match Putnam’s score, and that putt may well have been the turning point of the entire tournament.

His energy renewed, Kuchar holed putt after putt on the inward nine, recording five more birdies to pass Putnam and pull away from the entire field. His final birdie putt on the 18th sealed a four-shot victory and fell into the cup under a picturesque rainbow high above Oahu. Kuchar described the idyllic scene as “a special kind of magical moment.”

For the winner it was surely that, but for golf fans it was also a reminder that perhaps alone among our games golf is a sport where age alone does not determine greatness. There are of course individuals in every sport who excel long after most of their peers have retired. But when Tom Brady and Drew Brees take the field this weekend in the NFL’s Conference Championship games, they will be decided outliers.

Yet even as golf skews younger, there is still plenty of room for a veteran to become a central part of the sport’s conversation, not just for a weekend or two, but for an entire season. Matt Kuchar is now assured of having a tee time at next year’s Tournament of Champions, and at this admittedly early stage of the season he sits in second place in the FedEx Cup standings, his ticket not just to the Playoffs but all the way to the Tour Championship already almost certainly punched. Not bad for a golfer who just two short months ago looked to have become just one more victim of the ultimate enemy of every athlete – time.

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