SOUTHPORT, England — Matt Kuchar and caddie John Wood walked side-by-side to the 17th tee Sunday evening just minutes removed from witnessing the wonderkid's most recent act of wonderfulness.
They had to feel sick.
Kuchar, who three holes earlier had led the 146th British Open, all of a sudden trailed by two with two to play.
"Birdie-birdie, Kooch," Wood said to his man.
If only it were that easy.
About an hour later, Kuchar slumped behind a microphone at his press conference. "It's hard to explain. It's crushing. It hurts," he said.
Kuchar is 39 and regarded, now more than ever, as one of golf's best without a major. He led the Open by one after Jordan Spieth hit a drive a mile right on the 13th hole and made bogey. But Spieth followed with an incredible birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie burst to sprint past Kooch and win the claret jug by three.
The 13th hole was decisive—at first it seemed it would be the spot where Kuchar took command, but it turned out to be the site of the wake-up call Spieth needed. Spieth seemed to be teetering toward a, dare it be said, collapse akin to the 2016 Masters. Tied with Kuchar after 12, he struck his drive on 13, took two quick steps back and put both hands to his head, like he had witnessed a car crash.
He found his ball on the wrong side of a massive dune, and as he assessed his options Kuchar played first. Spieth, meanwhile, consulted his caddie, Michael Greller, and rules officials. He also took a couple of long walks to the top of that mountain to get a glimpse of the green. He eventually took an unplayable and dropped more than 50 yards back in the practice area, near a row of TV trucks.
Kuchar and Wood parked themselves in the fairway.
"Taking a drop far back on the range, trying to get the correct line that you take an unplayable drop, and then from there trying to figure out the distance, trying to figure out where to aim his shot—we knew we were going to be there for a while," Kuchar said. "We made ourselves comfy and told some stories. Certainly it was not anything I was ever going to be upset with. It's very understanding. It's a very difficult situation."
Hours earlier, Wood and Kuchar had been alone near the end of that same practice range. Most players were surrounded by caddies, coaches, agents and other inner-circle members during range sessions; Wood and Kuchar were outliers. They didn't speak much, yet emitted a steely focus.
Now, here they were again. Kuchar unfolded a towel on the ground and took a knee. When he and Spieth reconnected on the 13th green, Spieth apologized. During his victory speech on the 18th green, he commended Kuchar's patience, and again later in his press center.
"I apologized profusely to Matt about the amount of time it took from when he hit his shot to when I played my second, because that's just—it's tough," Spieth said. "There was nothing I could do, and he told me that."
About 15 minutes had passed between Kuchar's iron shot and his putt on 13, which burned the edge, as so many of his putts did Sunday. He also narrowly missed short birdie putts on 7 and 8.
Spieth's bogey on 13 gave Kuchar a one-shot lead, but Spieth nearly aced the par-3 14th and his birdie tied the score. Kuchar birdied 15, but Spieth one-upped him with a lengthy eagle putt to reclaim the lead by one. Spieth added another long birdie on 16 and matched Kuchar's birdie on the par-5 17th. Spieth's two-shot lead on the 18th tee turned out to be more than enough cushion, as Kuchar bogeyed 18 for a one-under 69, a score matched by Spieth.
"You work so hard to get to this position, and to have a chance to make history and win a championship," Kuchar said. "You don't get that many opportunities. And to be this close, to taste it with five holes to go, it's a hard one to sit back and take."
Kuchar has seven PGA Tour wins, including the 2012 Players and a World Golf Championship in 2013. But Sunday was his first time playing in a final group at a major.
"I believe Matt Kuchar will win a major championship, and I believe that he'll do it sometime soon," Spieth said. "He's a great champion and he's such a great person. And he's a great individual to look up to. He's one of these guys, when I talk about having great role models on the PGA Tour, and I'm fortunate in that, he's at the top of the class."
After Kuchar bogeyed 18 and congratulated Spieth, he walked off the green and straight to his family: wife, Sybi, and their two children, Cameron and Carson. His face was red—perhaps a mix of windburn and disappointment—as he hugged his loved ones. His kids seemed to take the loss hard.
When he had talked to them Saturday night, his family said they were in Colorado. Kuchar had no idea they were, in fact, in England until after his round Sunday.
"A teary surprise," Kuchar said, fighting his emotions. "Golf is a selfish game, and what they go through, it's an amazing support to help me try to be my best. It was very, very cool to have them here."