Matt Kuchar outplays all challengers at Players for first truly big win of career

Matt Kuchar earned his fourth career victory on the PGA Tour.
Fred Vuich / SI

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Under the right circumstances, it might have been a shot for the ages, a moment to remember in Masters lore. We might still be talking about that hellacious 3-wood shot Matt Kuchar hit to the 15th green beneath the white-hot glare of the Masters final round, and that clutch eagle putt he poured in to briefly tie for the lead.

But Smilin' Matt bogeyed the next hole, settled for a tie for third and moved back into the category of good-but-not-great players who we can forget about. Oh, really? That all changed Sunday afternoon when Kuchar finished off four days of outplaying, outchipping, outputting and, of course, outsmiling the field when he nailed down the first truly big win of his career, the Players Championship.

While others charged and fell back, Kuchar plodded around like the savvy 33-year-old veteran that he is, making only two bogeys in the final round en route to a two-under 70, a 13-under total and a two-shot victory over Martin Laird, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Ben Curtis. Good luck trying to wipe that familiar grin off Kuchar's face after winning his biggest title and $1.7 million. In the glowing twilight by the lake that Jerry Pate once famously dived into when the Stadium Course was young, this was Kuchar's finest hour.

"He's always smiling, that's the beauty of Matt," said Johnson, a close friend of Kuchar's and a 2010 Ryder Cup teammate. "However, he is as gritty and fierce a competitor as I've ever been associated with. We certainly witnessed that this week."

Maybe now Kuchar can feel better about his career. When he challenged for the Masters as a precocious (and smiling) amateur in 1998 and eventually placed 21st, there figured to be many more such days for Kuchar on the game's biggest playing fields. Fourteen years later, when he had a chance to win the Masters after that remarkable eagle, it was his first real brush with winning a major championship. So he's a bit of a late bloomer? Nothing wrong with that when the blossoms burst forth like this.

"This is one of the strongest fields in golf," Kuchar said. "To come out as the champion is just an amazing, amazing feeling."

He has developed into one of the most consistent American golfers, but here's a surprising stat: Before Sunday, he had won only three times. The 2002 Honda Classic, the 2009 Turning Stone Championship and the 2010 Barclays. Kuchar is a top-10 machine, on TV and in contention on a regular basis, so it hardly seems possible that he hadn't won anywhere in more than 18 months.

That's mere trivia now. His Players title? That's golf history, freshly drawn and rich in drama.

That Masters moment, the eagle putt, the noise, the big smile? It was replaced in Kuchar's highlight video by an even better moment Sunday. He had a two-shot lead and was facing a birdie putt at the par-5 16th green. Across the lake on the island-green 17th, The Human Creamsicle, orange-clad Rickie Fowler, rolled in a birdie putt that generated the week's loudest cheer. Fowler joined the group at two shots back. All Kuchar did was answer Fowler's thunder with some of his own. He rolled his 15-foot putt in for a dead-center, no-doubt-about-it birdie.

His lead was back to three. The cheers were electric. And, of course, Kuchar had reverted to his natural expression. He was smiling.

Kuchar's caddie, Lance Bennett, said Matt surely heard the roar but that his player didn't give Rickie a thought. Kuchar later said, oh no, he knew exactly what was going on. He saw it, he heard it and he answered. It was sweet.

"Yeah, I was pretty excited to stick it right back to Rickie," Kuchar said. "That was pretty awesome, absolutely. I had an angle, Rickie was pretty much putting straight toward me, so I watched the thing disappear and he gave a big fist pump. I knew it got him to within two shots, and he could birdie 18 to bring it to one. So I was really excited to drop that birdie on 16. That was big."

That clutch birdie putt by Kuchar wasn't the end, though. There was more to come, and it was more than formality. Kuchar safely hit onto the island-green 17th but three-putted for bogey. His lead was back to two strokes and Fowler, who had hit it close on 18, was trying to close with three straight birdies. But he missed his seven-foot birdie putt to the right, after watching Curtis roll in a birdie on exactly the same line, and Fowler's miss gave Kuchar some breathing room he was glad to have. All he needed for the win was a bogey at the 72nd hole. When he ran a 6-iron shot onto the front third of the green, he had three putts to win.
He got down in two, and then he picked up two. His young sons ran onto the green and he hoisted them to his chest like shining trophies.

Thus ended an unusual Players that featured Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els missing the cut, Tiger Woods never getting into contention, Fowler making a serious run at back-to-back wins, and Kevin Na getting more attention than anyone else for his start-again, stop-again, waggle-whiff, pre-shot routine that annoyed viewers and players and, in fact, frustrated Na himself.

Holding a one-shot lead, Na was the story going into Sunday's final round. Did you figure Na and his nervous tics and his need for repeated rebootings were on borrowed time under the pressure of Sunday's final round? If you did, you were right, and it didn't take long for Na to begin unraveling.

There was hope at the start, when Na was able to waggle twice on the first tee and then whip his drive down the fairway. But the waggles and the step-backs began anew in the fairway. He made a nice birdie at the par-5 second hole to briefly extend his lead to three shots, but then the song he was dreading began. Na-Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey-hey-hey, goo-ood-bye.

Na's second shot at the fifth hole found a hideous lie in the Bermuda rough short of the green. He hit it fluffy, and then hit his next chip to five feet and holed that for bogey. He had a four-footer to save par at the sixth but stopped mid-stroke and backed off before missing the putt for a second straight bogey. He popped up a tee shot at the long par-3 eighth hole, finding a bunker, and made bogey, then let a pitch from the rough get away from him at the ninth. It ran just over the back edge, into another thick patch of Bermuda, from where he chipped long and missed another par putt — his fourth bogey in five holes.

Kuchar birdied nine, leaving Na three shots back at that point. In the minds of many, it seemed Na was reeling and out of contention. He wasn't officially done, however, until he bogeyed the 12th with a pulled second shot and the 13th when he pulled another iron shot left, splashing it in the water at the par-3 hole.

The fifth hole grabbed crowd favorite Fowler, too. He had stiffed an approach shot for a kick-in birdie at the opening hole, then poured in a big-breaking putt down the slope for another birdie at the fourth, a putt that appeared to still be picking up speed when it barreled into the cup.

A pulled approach at the fifth scampered through the greenside bunker and hung up in the grass on the bunker's edge, leaving Fowler with an awkward, downward-angled stance. With one foot in the bunker and one in the grass, he caromed it off the far bank and got it on top of the plateau, but still in the rough. From there, he played a poor chip to eight feet and lipped out the bogey putt to make double. He added a bogey at the seventh.

Meanwhile, an interloper entered the picture. Anybody remember Luke Donald, formerly the No. 1-ranked player in the world? He birdied the first three holes on the back nine, then birdied 15, 16 and 17 and got up and down from the deep bunker behind the 18th green for 30 and a round of 66 that lifted him to nine under par.

For a time, it seemed as if that might be enough to put pressure on the leaders, based on the old logic about posting a score early. But the first few holes on the back nine were birdie opportunities Sunday, and the leaders took advantage, making Donald's charge too little, too late. The six top finishers behind Kuchar, for example, played the 10th through 12th holes in a combined 14 under par.

It was left to Fowler to be the last challenger, but that missed birdie at the 18th eased most of the remaining pressure on Kuchar. Fowler was grinning after the finish.

"The last few holes were a lot of fun," Fowler said. "It was a rush out there."

Nobody got a bigger rush than Kuchar. Was this better than the thrill he got at the Masters? No doubt about it. He'll get another rush next year, he said, when he walks through the clubhouse toward the course and passes through what is known as the champions' tunnel. It's where paintings of all The Players winners hang.

"I can't help but stop and gaze at all the pictures," Kuchar said. "To think that I'm going to be a part of that with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd and Phil Mickelson and David Duval and Tiger Woods. It's the best of the best. To see my picture up there next year will be pretty cool."

Kuchar was smiling widely, of course. It's sort of his trademark. And that won't be changing any time soon.