VICTORY at the Players Championship has given Matt Kuchar the belief that he can win the major title his consistent talent has long promised
IT’S a strange thing, given how well he plays in almost every tournament, but he doesn’t seem to get noticed much, perhaps because he’s nearly always there, albeit most often in the background of the foreground (or the foreground of the background, depending on your point of view). But he deserves better: if consistency is your thing, then Matt Kuchar is your man, a fact in which this amiable 34-year-old Floridian takes justifiable pride.
“2012 has been another good year for me, with one exception,” he said just after comfortably seeing off world No.1 Rory McIlroy in the opening round of the group stage of this past week’s Turkish Airlines World Golf Final. “It has become a big goal of mine not to miss cuts. But I missed at the [US] PGA, where I shot 82 in the second round. I just didn’t get along real well with that course [Kiawah Island].”
Over the last three years on the PGA Tour, Kuchar has accumulated 29 top-ten finishes in 72 starts (in comparison, Tiger Woods has 13), a remarkable 40 per cent success rate. He has also, in no particular order, picked up the 2010 Arnold Palmer award as America’s leading money winner, the 2010 Vardon Trophy for that year’s lowest scoring average, last year’s World Cup (in partnership with compatriot Gary Woodland) and, most memorably, victory in the 2012 Players Championship.
So Kuchar is clearly quite the golfer, one possessed of a sound and repeating technique – one that is unusually “flat” for a man standing 6’4” tall – and considerable nerve under pressure. Yet, perhaps because all those weeks spent on the fringes of contention have translated into “only” four PGA Tour wins, his highest-profile feature continues to be the admittedly goofy-looking grin that seems to reside permanently beneath his rapidly receding hairline.
Don’t be fooled though. Any impression that Kuchar is not the sharpest spike in the shoe is quickly dispelled by even the briefest chat with the former US Amateur champion. Never desperate to push himself forward, this resident of Sea Island, Georgia – Kuchar shares an exclusive zip code with recent Ryder Cup captain Davis Love and Brandt Snedeker – is nevertheless an astute observer of all things golf and, incidentally, easily the best American table tennis player on the PGA Tour. Not for nothing did another US Ryder Cupper, Phil Mickelson, declare himself “Matt Kuchar’s bitch” when it comes to the finer points of ping-pong.
“I’m a decent table tennis player, but if you were to put me up against any of the guys you see on television at the Olympics, I’d be lucky to get a couple of points,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a sport where the difference between the various levels is huge. It’s not like golf, where I could conceivably go out and lose to a scratch player on his home course. Although I’m a scratch ping-pong player, there is no possibility of me beating a top professional.”
Where Kuchar did beat every single leading pro, however, was this year at the Players at Sawgrass, Florida, the so-called “fifth major”.
“Winning at the Players is obviously the high point of my career so far,” he admits. “As I’ve progressed with my golf, I’ve set myself different goals. For a while it was to make the Tour Championship [which is open only to the top 30 money winners on the PGA Tour]. But I’ve done that in each of the last three years. Now, as my game has improved, I’m looking higher than that.”
Indeed, strangely for a man who was the low amateur at both the 1998 Masters and US Open, Kuchar’s record in the four majors has been disappointing, although a brace of top-tens this year hint at better things to come.
“I can’t deny it was all getting a little frustrating,” he says. “I went seven years between 2002 and 2009 without winning. Then I did win in ’09. A year later I won a Fed-Ex Cup play-off event. Then, even though I played well, I didn’t get it done in 2011. Which is why winning the Players was so important to me. Finishing first in a field that strong gave me a huge boost. On paper at least, it has the strongest field of the year. So I now know that I can definitely win a major championship. My best golf is good enough. Which is a great feeling. Knowing you can win is a lot different from wondering if you can. Now I just have to do it, of course.”
Despite the imminent probability of the R&A and USGA moving the goalposts as far as longer-than-standard putters are concerned, Kuchar – who runs the lengthy shaft of his putter up the inside of his left forearm, almost to his elbow – is sure any change to the rules will not directly affect the style that has served him so well over the last few years.
“They seem to be most concerned with ‘anchoring’ the club, where one point is fixed,” he says. “I don’t do that. The problem as I see it is that the rules people want the players to control both ends of the club. That’s what you have to do with every other club. But if you introduce a fulcrum point – an anchor – you only have to control one end. The way I putt, both ends of the club still move.
“I’d like to see something done about the long putters and belly putters. But I go back and forth on that. I’ve actually worked with a belly putter. For two months earlier this year I tried it seriously. I was a little more consistent, but I never really got a good grasp of it. So it doesn’t necessarily make you better. It is still a skill to be able to putt that way.”
Kuchar, of course, has been a part of the last two American Ryder Cup squads, both of whom have lost by a single point to the Europeans. It’s a trend, as you can imagine, he hasn’t exactly enjoyed.
“Although I am getting a little tired of talking about it, I look back at this year’s event and marvel at how exciting it was,” he says. “It always seems to come down to one or two matches and one or two shots within those matches. Both sides are so deep now, with great players. I won’t deny that it’s been tough to be on the last two American sides and lose so narrowly, but the Ryder Cup is an incredible event to be a part of.
“The last day this year was especially hard. It was a very bitter pill to swallow, having one of the biggest leads in Ryder Cup history, only to lose in the end. Having said that, we all went out there for the singles knowing that it was going to be highly competitive. The Europeans are too good for it to be a runaway. So we were taking nothing for granted. They just played better than we did.”
Which sounds familiar. “Mister Consistency” still has some work to do.