Matt Kuchar held off a quartet of golfers on Sunday to win the THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL for his fourth-career PGA TOUR victory. Kuchar finished with a two-under-par round 70 Sunday to post 13-under 275 in taking home the crystal vase. Martin Laird, Zach Johnson, Ben Curtis and Rickie Fowler all tied for second place after posting 11-under 277. Luke Donald finished sixth alone so Rory McIlroy remains world No. 1.
Matt Kuchar began his Sunday of Mother’s Day playing tennis with his wife. Three sets. They beat his parents 6-4 in the third set. It’s not exactly the pre-game routine that most pros would ever use but Matt Kuchar isn’t most pros. And his path to victory today is an interesting one.
After winning the U.S. Amateur in 1997, Kuchar splashed on the world’s scene by finishing as the low-am (T21) at Augusta the following year with his dad caddying for him. He bested that finish later that summer by finishing as the low-am again, this time at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club as he was T14, the lowest finish by an amateur since 1971. Here was the next “can’t miss” young player on TOUR. Kuchar chose to retain his amateur status before joining the TOUR in 2000. After winning the Honda Classic in 2002 Kuchar golf game couldn’t hold up on TOUR and he headed to the Nationwide in 2006. After finding his game and another win, Kuchar finished T10 on the money list, ensuring his return to the TOUR in 2007. Kuchar did just enough in 2007 and 2008 to retain his TOUR privileges before finally winning again on TOUR in 2009 in a playoff at Turning Stone.
And then he took off.
Kuchar qualified for the 2010 Ryder Cup in the eighth position based on his frequency in the top 10 that season. It wasn’t until the Barclays that he won for the first time that season. After a handful more of top 10’s in 2011, Kuchar’s name became synonymous with “Top 10”. If there was one knock on his excellent and steady game it was he just didn’t win enough. In 2011, he won for the only time in a team competition with Gary Woodland at the OMEGA Mission Hills World Cup.
This season Kuchar got off to a slow start, opening with T22, T33 and T24 before he got it rolling with back-to-back top 10’s at both WGC events. He logged another top 10 at TC before contending at Augusta with T3. After a disappointing final round 77 at RBC, Kuchar dusted himself off and was T13 at VTO in his first appearance in his last outing before winning this week.
Kuchar might not have a moustache. He doesn’t wear loud colors. Nor does he have his own boy band. But, he does have a commercial with his dad touting Bridgestone golf balls though! The point is Kuchar is known for being one of the nicest guys on TOUR and one of the most solid ball strikers and putters as well. His putter recently has left him but it returned with a bang this week. Over the last few years Kuchar was regularly in the top 30 in strokes-gained putting but came into this week ranked in the 130’s. Kuchar has also made 17 cuts in a row which is currently best on TOUR.
This week saw a return to normalcy as Kuchar finished up the week second in strokes gained-putting. And he was third in GIR. That combination is completely lethal most weeks and this week wasn’t any different. As well as Kuchar drives the golf ball (24th) and hits GIR (16th) when he putts this well he will be very tough to beat. He was cool down the stretch as his excellent ball striking kept him away from the many dangers lurking on the back nine at TPC Sawgrass. After rolling in a 15-foot birdie putt on 16 Kuchar had some breathing room as he faced 17 and 18. Leading on Saturday on 17 tee, Kuchar was woefully short and found the water. He wasn’t going to have a repeat Saturday on Sunday. His wedge found the lower tier of the green but it was dry. His three-shot lead was plenty of cushion and even three-putt bogey on 17 could unhinge his solid finishing round. On 18 he calmly slotted his hybrid down the fairway. His second found the putting surface and the two putts resulting in par saw him win his first PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP in convincing fashion. Kuchar finished with all four rounds under par at the Stadium Course joining Ben Curtis and Bo Van Pelt as the only players to do so.
Déjà vu All Over Again?
Since 2007 the 54-hole leader has not won the THE PLAYERS and that streak continues after Kevin Na failed to win.
The last 12 of 20 players (Hunter Mahan has won twice) who led after 54 holes on Tour have lost the lead in the final round. Kevin Na now makes it 13 of the last 21 as he began the day with a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar.
Matt Kuchar becomes the first American since 2007 (Phil Mickelson) and the sixth since 2000.
With this victory, Matt Kuchar earns $1,710,000 and 600 FedExCup points. Kuchar is now sixth in the FedExCup standings, trailing leader Hunter Mahan.
Young Guns versus Old Guns
In 21 tournaments this season the “Young versus Old” argument now stands at 10-9-2 as Matt Kuchar cashes for the “Middle” men.
For the “young”, Johnson Wagner (31), Brandt Snedeker (31), Kyle Stanley (24) and Bill Haas (29), John Huh (21), Hunter Mahan TWICE (29), Rory McIlroy (22), Justin Rose (31) and now Rickie Fowler (23) lead the way for the “Young” guys.
Mark Wilson (37) is joined by George McNeill (36), Luke Donald (34), Tiger Woods (36), Bubba Watson (33), Carl Pettersson (34), Ben Curtis (34) Jason Dufner (35) and now Matt Kuchar (33) in the “Middle”.
Steve Stricker (44) and Phil Mickelson (41) are flying the flag for the “Old” folks on Tour.
Kuchar’s win makes it four straight for the U.S.A. crew and seven of the last nine winners on TOUR heading back to Luke Donald’s win at TC.
Martin Laird: The first-round leader blistered TPC Sawgrass to the tune of seven birdies and zero bogeys on Thursday before becoming anonymous Friday and Saturday. Ten birdies, nine bogeys and a double will do that to most golfers but Laird gamely rallied on Sunday to make things interesting for a minute or two late in the day. Laird played fantastic golf as he finished in the top 10 in both driving categories, the top six in all three putting categories and was 21st GIR. His 67 on Sunday was excellent but his two bogeys on 14 and 18 helped relieve the pressure of that his 24 birdies had put on Kuchar. His five-foot- par on 18 that slid just right could have claimed second alone and put some heat on Kuchar on 17 and 18. Since finishing T5 WGC-Match Play, Laird had not finished better than T24 in six starts and missed the cut in two of those. This is Laird’s second, second-place finish of 2012 (HTOC).
Zach Johnson: The up-and-down season for Zach Johnson continued in the better direction this week with his T2. Based on his history this season, this would seem to be about right. After T33 at WGC-Match Play, he finished T17 at Doral. He finished T46 in his next outing, TC, and followed that with T11 at API. Johnson was T32 at the Masters before finishing second at RBC. Of course he finished T69 last week at WFC just so the “streak” would continue. Johnson’s iron play allowed him to stay in contention throughout the week and his putter helped bail him out with an excellent two-putt on 17 and a 25-footer for par on 18 to finish T2. So in his next outing I should ignore him based on the trend above? Gaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
Ben Curtis: Usually to contend at THE PLAYERS golfers need to be excellent in GIR. Somebody forgot to tell the smoking-hot Ben Curtis that was the case. Curtis is usually known for his steady play from tee to green but this week his putter was leading the charge. Curtis led the field in strokes gained-putting and putts per round which helped offset his T55 GIR. Curtis birdied 16 and 18 to jump into T2 and continue his torrid streak. Curtis joined Kuchar and Bo Van Pelt as the only golfers to play all four rounds under-par this week. In his last four events Curtis has finished WIN, T13, T5 and T2 this week. That’s one hell of a month!
Rickie Fowler: Speaking of months not to forget, Fowler did the “reverse Carl Pettersson” in his last two events as he finished WIN last week and T2 this week. That’s a great SEASON for most guys. Fowler stayed hot by leading the field in GIR AND birdies (25 made). Fowler blasted TPC Sawgrass on Saturday to the tune of 66. On Sunday he was two-under through four and putting pressure on Na and Kuchar before taking double on five and bogey on seven, turning in 37. It looked like the magic from last week might have worn off but the “Traffic Cone” (my nickname for him on Sunday) rallied for four birdies on the back for 33. Sadly for Fowler his birdie putt on 18, which he received a perfect read from Ben Curtis before him, slid by the hole. This did two things: kept Kuchar’s lead at three and knocked Fowler out of second alone. Yikes, big putt…After being CUT at RBC Fowler has finished T10, P1 and T2 this week. No more talk about moustaches and flashy clothes. No more talk about equipment changes and Golf Boys videos. Now it’s time to talk Ryder Cup and majors for Fowler.
Luke Donald: Nothing stuck out on the stat sheet this week except his place on the leader board. Donald needed fourth alone or better to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the world but I doubt he’ll be too disappointed with sixth alone. He finished sixth by killing the back nine on Sunday to the tune of 30. His 30 tied Kevin Na (Thursday) for the low back-nine of the week. Donald poured in nine birdies to just three bogeys on the weekend. In his last four outings the world No. 2 finished T32 at the Masters, T37 RBC, third alone at Zurich and sixth alone this week.
Bo Van Pelt: After his WD last time out at WFC for a sore wrist, I was interested to see how BVP would respond this week at this course. The answer, based on his play for most of 2012, was not surprising, another top 10. BVP also struggled to hit greens, T43 GIR, but his flat stick finished T12 in strokes-gained putting this week. BVP opened with a 71 that included two doubles on the back nine and rallied to finish T7 on the week as he broke par in all four rounds. Any questions about his wrist should be moot after this performance. Make that five top 10’s on the year for BVP!
Jhonattan Vegas: Welcome back to the weekend wrap-up column, Johnny Vegas! Vegas’ last top 10 was the WGC-HSBC Champions in November of last year. Since then Vegas had played 12 events on TOUR and has been CUT in six of them. His best finish was 27th at the season opening HTOC. At the HTOC there were only 28 players in the field so you can do the math on that…His T46 the following week at Sony was his best FFSP (Full-Field, Stoke-Play) event of 2012. If you had him on your fantasy roster this week, please go and buy a lottery ticket or 20. GO NOW!
Kevin Na: Four bogeys in his final five holes on the front was the downfall of the 54-hole leader. After not missing a putt inside five feet all week, Na missed two of less than five feet in that stretch. If you would have seen Na finished at T7 before the week started, you probably wouldn’t have been too surprised. In 14 events this year, Na has hit the top 10 in five of them and has two more finishes in the top 25. It was tough to see HOW he finished not where he finished. He came into Sunday with only six bogeys. He finished Sunday with six more. Not even his excellent putting numbers could save him time and time again. Last year he was remembered for his adventure at VTO. This year it will be for his adventure at TPC Sawgrass. I am interested to see how all the “slow play” and “waggle” chatter will affect Na as we move forward in 2012.
Carl Pettersson: When Carl Pettersson plays, he’s either really good or really blah. In 12 events in 2012 Pettersson has a WIN, T2, second and this week’s T10. In his other eight events he’s been CUT twice, T33, T34, T36, T42 and T46. He was CUT twice in a row before finishing second and winning only to follow that with another CUT. Pettersson would have been higher up this list if it wasn’t for his double on 18 to close on Sunday.
David Toms: Last year’s runner-up to K.J. Choi was not going to go quietly on Sunday afternoon. After playing the middle rounds in three-over, Toms came on Sunday and looked to add to that misery. He birdied one but backed that up with bogeys on two and four to move into black numbers for the day. But, starting with a field shot on six for eagle, Toms played his last 13 holes in eight-under to finish to tie the low round of the week, 65. There was neither smoke nor mirrors from Toms as he led the week in fairways hit and was third in GIR. This was Toms’ second top 10 of the year. Last year Toms used his finish at TPC Sawgrass as a springboard to his victory at Colonial.
“Hey, whatever happened to…”
Rory McIlroy: The world’s No. 1 player has now missed the cut in all three of his career starts at TPC Sawgrass. I’ll keep reminding myself that he just turned 23 and improving all the time. In the season’s two biggest events, McIlroy has been T40 at the Masters and CUT at THE PLAYERS. In the other four events he’s finished second, WIN, third and P2. Thanks to Donald’s sixth-place finish McIlroy remains No. 1 in the world if you are into that kind of thing.
Lee Westwood: The world’s No. 3 player struggled on the weekend after finding himself at three-under par at the beginning of Saturday. Westwood made 16 pars and two bogeys on Saturday to fade to T44. On Sunday, he had a streak of 10 holes without a par. Westwood is known for his consistency but he didn’t find much of it on Sunday. Stop me if you have heard this one before, but Westwood’s putter didn’t cooperate as he finished in the bottom of the putting stats this week. After back-to-back top five finishes before this week at the Masters and WFC, Westwood will be on my radar come the U.S. Open at Olympic Club.
Steve Stricker: All good things come to an end goes the old saying. After 49 straight events Steve Stricker finally was CUT this week at THE PLAYERS. Matt Kuchar now takes over the lead with cuts made with 17. Stricker made three birdies and two doubles in his two rounds and was generally “off”. In eight events in 2012, Stricker has a WIN and three more top 10’s; he also has T38, T36 and was T47 at the Masters. Now that the cuts-made streak is over, it might be time to reevaluate the man from Wisconsin at THE PLAYERS. He has one top 10 in 16 career appearances.
Tiger Woods: Another week and another week of questions posed instead of questions answered for Woods. Woods crept out in 74 on Thursday only to show signs of life with 68, including four birdies in a row, on Friday to rekindle hope. Even par on moving day Saturday stalled any rally that was going to be made and his opening nine 40 on Sunday condemned his fate. But, on the back nine he shot 33, three-under par. So is he back again? Here’s what I do know: Woods only has one top 10 since his victory in 2001 at TPC Sawgrass.
Hunter Mahan: The only two-time winner on TOUR to his season and ball-striker extraordinaire struggled this week and was CUT after shooting 74-76. Playing with Woods and Fowler, Mahan’s usually steady iron play deserted him this week. Three double bogeys cancelled out six birdies and the FedExCup leader was sent packing for the first time in 2012 and the first time since The Open Championship last year. There’s nothing to see here people, move along!