A little over a year ago, Matt Kuchar was a lanky journeyman who had scratched out a respectable but not very exciting pro career on the PGA Tour. Then he survived a six-hole, two-day playoff with Vaughn Taylor to win the Turning Stone Resort Championship in early October, the first event of the 2009 Fall Series. No one could have predicted what came next. Kuchar not only won for the third time on Tour (the Barclays), he's on track to win the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average (69.57) and the money title ($4.91 million) in 2010. The second honorific comes with a five-year exemption, and Kuchar may also be voted Player of the Year.
There is much to be decided as players gear up for this week's Frys.com Open at CordeValle Golf Club, a new venue in San Martin, Calif., replacing Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. At this, the third stop in the Tour's Fall Series, there's the usual mad rush to crack the top 125 in money and secure full status for 2011, and the top 30 to land an invitation to the Masters. But just as tantalizing is the prospect of becoming this year's Kuchar by jumping off a late success and crashing the Tour's sanctified elite.
"I would like to finish a good year off and make it a great year by getting a victory not only here this week, but maybe next week as well," said Ricky Barnes, 29.
Like the pre-emergent Kuchar, Barnes is a former U.S. Amateur champion (he beat Hunter Mahan 2 and 1 in the final at Oakland Hills in 2002) who has never quite achieved stardom since turning pro. He tied for second at the 2009 U.S. Open, but quickly lost traction, missing six straight cuts — a rally-killer, in retrospect.
"Didn't finish off the year like I wanted to," Barnes said. "I was actually quite mad at myself, and also disappointed."
Perhaps as a result of his post-June swoon, his 2010 season has been more good than great. Barnes has had six top-10 finishes, including at tie for 10th at the Masters (getting him in for 2011) and a tie for third at the Memorial, where, paired with Tiger Woods, he shot a third-round 62. But he's still looking for his first win.
So is Rickie Fowler, who lost a three-man playoff to Troy Matteson at last year's Frys.com but is riding a wave of momentum after making four straight birdies to salvage a half point in his Ryder Cup singles match against Edoardo Molinari nine days ago.
This week will mark Fowler's first start since that thrilling performance, and after two more second-place finishes on Tour (at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, in late February, and the Memorial, in June) he's a popular pick to nail down his first W.
Jamie Lovemark, the third man in the Frys.com playoff last year, didn't get through Q school after his near miss in Scottsdale, but he leads the Nationwide tour money list in 2010, which will get him onto the PGA Tour in 2011.
Just as he did last year, he got into the Frys.com on a sponsor's exemption.
"One shot, one putt changes everything," Lovemark said, when asked about the 2009 playoff, which Matteson won with a birdie on the second extra hole. "I'm happy where I am this year. The Nationwide tour has been great for me. It's great for a lot of people for different reasons. It's taught me how to be in contention, how to score and make a lot of birdies, how to travel by myself and live that kind of life."
Having played CordeValle about a dozen times in college, Lovemark is more familiar than most with the 7,368-yard, par-71 track, which was built in 1999 and makes full use of the rolling hillsides and natural beauty of Northern California. The course has been touted as one of the best ever designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., and as with last week's McGladrey Classic, tournament officials hope players love it enough to return.
"We played a month later, so it was a little colder," Lovemark said. "So the ball was going shorter and the course was playing tougher. I think we probably shot 10-, 12-under for three rounds. I'm expecting to be between 16 and 20 [under par]."
Kevin Chappell, who is eighth on the Nationwide money list but like Lovemark is a California native, also has been given a sponsor's exemption to the Frys.com.
On other tours this week …
• Just a few hours up the road from CordeValle, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, Christina Kim and Cristie Kerr will be among the headliners at the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge at Blackhawk Country Club in Danville, Calif.
• Ross Fisher leads a small group of European Ryder Cup teammates into the Euro tour's Portugal Masters at Oceanico Victoria Golf Course in Vilamoura.
Weather-weary after a rainy Ryder and last week's cold, windy Dunhill Links, Fisher, Miguel Angel Jimenez and the brothers Molinari (Edoardo and Francesco) hope to dry out and improve their position in the Race to Dubai, the Euro FedEx Cup. Six tournaments remain before the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
Lee Westwood is the defending champion in Portugal, having edged Francesco Molinari a year ago, but Westwood is still nursing a calf injury and won't play this week.
• This week's Miccosukee Championship at Miccosukee Golf and Country Club in Miami is the second to last full-field event before the Nationwide Tour Championship, which takes only the top 60 players on the money list.
The top 25 men on the final money list will earn promotions to the PGA Tour.
The latest to move above the cut line is Australian Scott Gardiner, 34, who won last week's Chattanooga Classic in a playoff to move from 62nd to 24th — a tremendous leap up the money list but, alas, still on the bubble for advancement next year.
Peter Tomasulo, captain of the 2004 NCAA champion Cal Bears golf team, will likely have to sit and hope he's okay at 15th on the money list. He broke his right foot in a pick-up basketball game in Chattanooga last Tuesday, and will miss the next few weeks.
"Hopefully I've made enough money to lock up my card," he said, "but freakier things have happened."