Tim Finchem was freaking. All right, maybe that’s not the correct word. This commissioner doesn’t really freak. But his favorite TV show—the NBC telecast of the Players Championship—was scheduled for a 7 p.m. handoff to Golf Channel. And he wanted his newest American golf hero, Mr. Matt Kuchar, with his Suzy Chapstick smile and his killer golf game, to get the full national treatment. Bubba got it last month at Augusta. Now it was Kooch’s turn for the prime-time hugfest and that whole thing. Why, oh, why did Kevin Na have to hit his tee shot on 18 a mile right, in the rough, over the cart path, near the tents, among the fans? Na, who wears the periodic table symbol for sodium on his sleeve, just can’t make things easy on himself.
Finchem stood behind the 18th green on a balmy night begging for blankets and fireworks. He checked his silver Rolex. He checked it again. Seven o’clock was coming on fast. He turned to the man on his right, a Tour executive named Matt Rapp, and asked him to confirm the time.
Kooch had a two-shot lead. Mark McCumber was once asked the best way to play the 18th hole at the Stadium course with the tournament on the line. Maybe a cut three-wood off the tee? McCumber, the 1988 winner, said, “with a two-shot lead.” Kuchar was going to win the tournament. The question was when. While K-Na tried to figure out how to play his second shot on the last hole, Kuchar stood in the middle of the fairway, waiting and waiting and waiting. He talked sports with his caddie, Lance Bennett. He “rehearsed,” he said later, not his winner’s speech, but his final approach shot, the shot that triggered Hal Sutton, on his way to the 2000 championship, to say, “Be the right club today.”
This Players Championship, despite some built-in problems, is on the rise. Rory McIlroy missed the cut this year but said he’s committed to the event for the next 20 editions. (Oh, to be 23.) Phil Mickelson, newbie inductee, was low Hall of Famer this year. The tournament is giving us, almost annually now, pictures to store permanently in our portable iBrains, no flash drive necessary.
The approach shot Kuchar slashed out of a fairway bunker on the par-4 14th, the hardest hole on the course, was one of those shots, a mental keeper. The killer golfer, even if he’s all smiley, is a ruthless opportunist. (See: Woods, Tiger, 1997–2008.) What made Kuchar’s trap shot special was not only that he carried the lip, fought the breeze and knocked it to 43 feet from 185 yards, negotiating water, rough, trees and nerves along the way. It was also special because the bunker kept his tee shot from going into a lagoon. In other words, Kuchar caught a break, and he cashed in on it, the way winners do.
Kuchar is loaded with the cheeky confidence you associate with the best athlete you knew in high school, although he kind of hides it. Seven gents on holiday from Bermuda met Kuchar on Tuesday of tournament week and asked him who was going to win the Players. “I am,” Kuchar said, all smiley. “Know dat.” On Sunday, when Kuchar sauntered by the Bermuda guys, they called out, “Know dat!” Kooch, casual and cool, gave them the wave and the nod.
But when he holed his winning putt at 6:59 p.m., Matt Kuchar was in full-on Eddie Haskell mode. It was Mother’s Day, and he thanked his, of course. He wore a pink hat and matching cheeks.
The Players has now been played six times as a May event, but this was the first year the tournament enjoyed four days of gorgeous spring weather. The course was fast and windswept and interesting, with firm, brownish greens that, like the greens at Augusta National, will not let you nap. Poor Na, the 54-hole leader. At the 6th hole on Sunday he backed off a three-footer for par, looked straight up to read the wind in the trees, got back in the batter’s box and missed. At that point Na was 12 under par, Kuchar was 11 under and Rickie Fowler, one group ahead and dressed like one of Anita Bryant’s old Florida orange blossoms, was nine under. It was some game.
Ninety miles up the road, in Sea Island, Ga., Davis Love III was watching the whole thing with growing interest. Love, a two-time Players winner who missed the cut last week, is the Ryder Cup captain this year. Ryder Cup captains want all-world putters on their team, and Na, born in South Korea but now a U.S. citizen, is one of the best in the game. That is, when wind gusts and voices are not in his head, and the alignment line on his Titleist ball is absolutely perfect. Love also wanted to see how his various fellow Sea Islanders fared in Ponte Vedra Beach. Kuchar lives on Sea Island. So do Zach Johnson and Jonathan Byrd, who were standing in the vicinity of Finchem. Lucas Glover lives on Sea Island. So does Harris English. Brandt Snedeker goes to Sea Island regularly to practice and see his swing coach, staying in his condo there. Charles Howell is renting on Sea Island this summer. The pick-up golf games at Sea Island are ridiculous. Kuchar’s smack dab in the middle of them.
“The smile is real,” Love said on Sunday night. “Kooch walks around happy. If he’s going to play Ping-Pong, he’s excited. If he’s going to play tennis, he’s excited. If he’s going to practice, he’s excited.” Kuchar, 33, was a Ryder Cup rookie in 2010, and Love hopes he’ll be on this year’s team. “He loves being under pressure,” Love said. “He loves being under the spotlight.” The überflat swing is not a thing of beauty. Kuchar’s putting stroke, with a long-shafted putter that he practically attaches to his left forearm, is not the kind of move a classicist like Dave Stockton would endorse. But it works. Kuchar does his own thing.
When Mark Steinberg, Tiger’s agent, left IMG last year and joined Excel Sports, Kuchar was one of the players he was eager to sign. Kuchar and Gary Woodland. He got both. At the Masters this year Steinberg had a 90-second off-campus conversation with Kuchar after three rounds were done and Kuchar was four shots off the lead.
“You don’t have that many opportunities to win majors,” Steinberg told Kuchar, in Kuchar’s telling of it. Tiger Woods became Tiger Woods by seizing almost every opportunity he’s had to win majors. “You have to take advantage of them. Go out there and be aggressive.” Be aggressive. Be-be aggressive. Kuchar finished two shots out of the Bubba–King Louis playoff.
At the Masters and the Players, Steinberg said on Sunday night, “I saw somebody who wants to win.” Of course, every Tour player wants to win, but there are levels of want. Think of the urgency in Sutton’s voice when he said the word today. That’s what Steinberg was talking about, that kind of desperation, that kind of want.
But the thing that will make the 2012 Players Championship so memorable was not just the solid, go-after-it play of Kuchar, who won with scores of 68, 68, 69 and 70. No. It was that he shot that two-under finale while playing beside Na, who spent the weekend explaining with endearing candor the problems he’s having getting his swing started. At times, Kuchar was clearly trying to avoid eye contact with Na’s club face, but he wound up seeing most of Na’s 76 shots. And, as Kuchar noted, “there’s some audio included.”
Poor Na has a full-blown case of golfer OCD, where he needs to take four waggles—two little ones and two big ones—before he can pull the trigger. But if some minor thing goes wrong, he has to start all over again. And for Na, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. On the 5th tee he tried to use his driver as a fly swatter. That’s always a study in futility. Seconds later he tried to smash down a resilient stray blade of grass that was sticking out of the tee like an unwanted hair. When he was finally over the ball, he had two full-blown Monica Seles grunts when he interrupted his preshot routine and started over. It’s not entertaining. You can only feel for the guy. “I’m going to try to take out the whole waggle,” Na said when the shouting was over. “Honestly, it’s going to be a battle.” His droopy final round dropped him into a tie for seventh.
There was a four-way tie for second, two shots behind Kuchar, and all four golfers could play in the Ryder Cup this year: Martin Laird, a Scotsman, for Europe, and Johnson, Fowler and Ben Curtis for the U.S. Thanks largely to his tie for third at Augusta and his victory at the Players, Kuchar is third on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list. The top eight make it automatically. He’s almost a lock.
On Sunday night he got a text from Love: “Congratulations on winning your first major.” O.K., the Players is not really a major. But when the greens are brown and your playing partner is deep in your head and a win gets you $1.7 million and a black-and-white snap on a wall that features Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods, the whole thing feels pretty darn grand. Know that. The putt to win went in, and a relieved Tim Finchem checked that his blazer was buttoned and shook the winner’s hand. “Yeah, baby!” Kooch said much later, letting loose. They got it in.