Our thought was that a photograph of Matt Kuchar swinging an illuminated six-iron in a darkened room would be way cool. So we got permission to erect a black-fabric cube in the ladies’ locker room at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. We strapped a high-powered strobe near the ceiling (to freeze Kuchar’s follow-through), and we put the camera on a tripod, about knee-high, facing the open side of the cube. We borrowed the six-iron from the Colonial pro shop; to make it cool, we strapped a cluster of blue LED lights to the head.
Kuchar’s only concern, when he stepped onto the set, was that he might not have enough headroom to swing freely. (He’s 6′ 4″.) It turned out that he had two or three inches to spare on the backswing, so a photo assistant flicked the wall switch. The room went mine-shaft black. Nothing was visible but the LEDs, glowing like a jarful of lightning bugs.
“Start at the top of your backswing,” the photographer said, “and when you hear the shutter click, make a slow-motion swing and hold the finish. Ready?” The shutter clicked, Kuchar made a slow-motion swing, and the clubhead tracked a blue loop in the dark until the strobe flashed, followed by a second click of the shutter.
“Matt, I don’t want you to do anything unnatural”—the photographer again—”but could you look a little more to the right and up at the end?”
“Like this?” Kuchar posed in the beam of an assistant’s flashlight, his chin elevated, his eyes tracking an imaginary pop-up to rightfield.
Kuchar flashed his trademark grin. “That’s my ‘Oh dear’ look.”
The crew laughed.
It’s hard to tell in a blackened room, but Kuchar seemed to be enjoying himself. He chuckled. He cracked wise at his own expense. When we asked him to adjust his setup or change the pace of his swing, the PGA Tour’s most consistent performer quietly complied. The shutter clicked, the clubhead left a trail of blue across the black canvas, the strobe popped. The shutter clicked again.
“Ben Hogan did something like this.” The voice came from behind the photographer. “You can see how Matt’s backswing gets wide, and then on the downswing it gets narrow. And you can see the lag.” The speaker was looking at one of our time exposures on the camera’s screen, which showed how Kuchar’s wrists stayed cocked as long as possible, the clubhead trailing like a balloon on a string. “Amateurs love lag,” the voice explained, “because most of them do the opposite. They take it back narrow and go wide coming down.”
The voice belonged to Chris O’Connell, the Dallas-based coach credited with overhauling Kuchar’s swing. Without O’Connell’s help, we had been told, the former Georgia Tech star might still be languishing on the Nationwide tour. Instead of, you know, swanning around as the PGA Tour’s reigning money champ ($4.9 million last year) and 2010 Vardon Trophy winner for low stroke average (69.43).
Whispering, we asked O’Connell how he had rebuilt Kuchar’s swing. He responded with a self-effacing snort. “It’s funny, but I don’t believe in swing overhauls. I think they’re ludicrous.”
Yes, but hadn’t he—
“These guys on the Tour,” he interrupted, “are the best. Every golfer does a few things right, and these guys do a lot of things right. So I don’t change a Tour player’s grip or his stance. In fact, I don’t believe in changing the golf swing. I believe in fixing golf swings.”
O’Connell couldn’t see us, but we nodded.
“Ready?” asked the photographer. Click…flash!…click.
I had a couple of lessons growing up,” Kuchar said, walking to the Colonial practice range with a long, cardboard carton tucked under his right arm. “But it was pretty much trial and error. I had a homemade swing.”
It was Tuesday afternoon at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, so Kuchar had to stop to sign autographs and shake hands with people he sees once a year. The sun seemed doubly bright after the dark room, but Kuchar didn’t squint. He’s not a squinter. When he meets someone, his eyes widen and he grins.
“I had a good grip and setup,” he continued, ambling down a cart path. “But I didn’t have a good understanding of swing fundamentals.”
It wasn’t a bad swing, his old one. You don’t win the 1997 U.S. Amateur, shoot even par in your first Masters and finish 14th and nab low-am honors at the 1998 U.S. Open—all before your 21st birthday—with a bad swing. In fact the camera loved that swing. Shaft parallel to the target line at the top. Butt of the club pointed at the target line on the way down. Classic follow-through. That swing produced a second- and a third-place finish in Kuchar’s abbreviated rookie season on the PGA Tour, in 2001. That swing won the 2002 Honda Classic and made him a millionaire by the age of 24.
But then the swing stopped working. From 2003 through ’05 Kuchar had only two top 10s in 72 starts, missed the cut 42 times and finally lost his Tour card. That’s how he wound up playing the Nationwide tour with a surprisingly good attitude and a swing that needed a complete overha…well, that needed to be fixed.
It was a pretty swing,” O’Connell said, standing in the shade of an oak on Colonial’s 18th hole. “It wasn’t a real reliable swing. Matt used his forearms to square the club face, and that limited him. He’d play good three or four times a year instead of 10 or 12 times.”
Same day, but earlier. Three pros were in the fairway finishing their practice rounds. Can’t say who, but it’s a good bet that none of them had a better 2011 scoring average than Kuchar’s 69.56 (second on Tour) or had as many top 10 finishes (eight).
“What he’d actually do,” O’Connell said, “was aim left, try to hold on, and block the ball. He tried to stay down the target line, but too often the club would flip over on him and he’d hook it.” Taking us for experts, he added, “It was a club face issue, not a swing-path issue.”
Kuchar engaged O’Connell in the spring of ’06 on the recommendation of former Georgia Tech teammate Matt Weibring. “He didn’t come to me with a lot of scar tissue,” O’Connell said, watching Kuchar banter with a fellow pro in the fairway. “He wasn’t a broken-down journeyman looking for a miracle.”
O’Connell is said to be a proponent of the one-plane swing, but his initial sessions with Kuchar focused on one simple idea. “Matt already came at the ball from the inside,” he said. “My job was to get him swinging back to the inside after impact. Swinging down the line, you miss left too much.” He kicked at a twig. “Golf is all about predicting the outcome. Billy Casper hit a low ball all the time. Jack Nicklaus hit a high fade. Tom Watson hit a high draw. But they all knew where it was going, and they hit it solid.”
Having learned from the travails of Tiger Woods about how difficult it is to make swing changes, we asked O’Connell how Kuchar had coped with the inevitable frustrations of his makeover—the wayward shots, the months of fruitless practice, the crises of faith.
“Oh, Matt got it right away,” the coach said, looking surprised. “His next Nationwide tournament, he finished second.” O’Connell gave a nothing-to-it shrug. “If he hadn’t gotten better right away, he’d have moved on to another instructor.”
Kuchar’s “fixed” swing, the photo shows, is much flatter than you’d expect for a player of his height. Or it would show that, if we had gone for the down-the-line, from-behind angle that O’Connell recommended. “Matt’s backswing will go inside, but his downswing will come outside,” he said, a voice in the dark. “People will think, Oh, wow, his backswing is on a different plane than his downswing!”
That would be cool, we told the coach, but not way cool. The strobe would light up the back of Kuchar’s head.
Plus, frankly, Kuchar’s new swing won’t win any beauty contests. The only reason other Tour players watch him practice is to suss out how he pockets a five- or six-figure check virtually every time he tees it up. Or to ask how he arranged, last year, to make the fewest bogeys on Tour. “He’s been our most consistent player for the last year and a half,” says 2003 U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk. “Week in, week out, he’s played the best.”
“You can hear Matt talking to his golf ball out there, saying ‘stinker’ and ‘golly gee,'” adds an amused Mark Wilson. “But he’s always got game, and he always seems to move to the top of the leader board by the weekend.”
Pressed for his secret, Kuchar points to his ball striking, his wedge game, his putting and his course management—i.e., everything. “People ask me what the difference was between last year and before,” he said on his walk to the range. “But actually I’ve gotten better every year since I started working with Chris. There’s been a nice steady improvement.”
Some say it’s not the Kuchar swing, it’s the Kuchar temperament. “He doesn’t seem to take it real serious,” says David Toms, this year’s Colonial champion. “He simply plays his game.” Fellow Ryder Cupper Hunter Mahan says, “He has a killer instinct, but he’s superpatient. He doesn’t get too down on himself.”
We couldn’t photograph Kuchar’s demeanor, but we got him to admit that his mental approach was critical to his success. “I don’t beat myself up when I miss a couple of shots,” he said, still ambling. “I’m very accepting of mediocre shots.”
Is his reasoning more important than his swing?
He stopped. He thought. He shook his head. He said, “I don’t think you can think your way to better golf. If you can’t hit the ball on the sweet spot, time after time, your mental approach isn’t going to make a difference.”
To end the session in the darkened room, we asked Kuchar to adjust his stance 45 degrees and aim out of the cube. “Swing a bit faster,” the photographer said.
Happy to oblige, Kuchar set the club above his shoulder and waited. The shutter clicked, the blue brushstroke started its smooth descent…and then the clubhead exploded in blue sparks. Little shooting stars raced toward us, peppering the darkness with unexplained clinks, clanks and thuds before we could even flinch.
To yelps of alarm and glee, someone flicked on the room lights. The LEDs, we saw at once, had detached from the club face and strafed the room, knocking over cans, scattering papers and ricocheting off tripods. “Wow!” said the photographer.
But the best part was the puzzled, embarrassed grin on Kuchar’s face as he stared out at us, the six-iron resting on his shoulder.
It was way, way cool.