Remember: They're not booing, they're saying "Kooooooch."
And when they're not saying "Koooooch", they're saying "Duuuuuuuuude … you could win the U.S. Open!"
That's the takeaway from Matt (The Grinning American) Kuchar's two-shot win over Rickie Fowler, Ben Curtis, Zach Johnson and Martin Laird at The Players Championship on Sunday. In the post-Tiger world where every major is won by a different player – step right up Martin Kaymer, take a bow Trevor Immelman, doff your cap Bubba Watson, don't be shy Keegan Bradley, we see you Rory McIlroy – Kuchar perfectly fits the bill to make his homecoming to the Olympic Club in San Francisco at next month's U.S. Open a big old, tooth-baring smile-fest.
Yes, I called it a homecoming. Even though the 1997 U.S. Amateur champion and 1998 top college golfer of the year is as Southern genteel as they come – raised in Florida, star at Georgia Tech, calls St. Simons Island, Ga. home – he had his debutante bash amid the fog-shrouded cypress trees in San Francisco's classic lakeside layout. There, on his 20th birthday, Kuchar finished his 72nd hole tied-14th in the field, the low amateur and the leading player in the 1998 U.S. Open field for unabashed fan connection. His father caddied for him and exulted the entire time, while veteran players grumbled at what they perceived as chest-thumping by a kid who'd never cashed a check on Tour.
Even though the term probably hadn't been invented in 1998, we can say now they were nothing but haters.
Fourteen years later, Kuchar has it all: a beautiful family, a $1.7 million check from Sawgrass, one of the most consistent games on the planet (his 17 consecutive cuts and five top-10s this year are tops), a college degree from Georgia Tech and the No. 5 slot in the Official World Golf Rankings.
What's not to grin about?
It's not just the ear-to-ear doozy that Kuchar flashes every hole that makes you take notice. It's his play. He's now backed up a third-place finish at the Masters with a win at The Players, making him the best big-tournament player on the planet in 2012.
By contrast, the world No. 1 backed up his tie-44th at Augusta National with a missed cut at Sawgrass, and spent Sunday on his couch watching his beloved Manchester United football team have the English Premier League title snatched away by rival Manchester City. Worse, he had to have his tennis star girlfriend tweet about his pained fan silence while Manchester City celebrated. Not a good weekend for young Rory McIlroy.
Kuchar, meanwhile, is happy playing the satisfied tortoise to the hare of societal expectations. When media and sponsor pressure leaned on him in 1998 to turn pro before graduating to cash in on his Olympic Club momentum, he balked. Kuchar wanted to stay in school, get his degree, move at his own pace and live the life of a relatively normal 20-year-old kid. Some said he was insane. Kuchar just kept grinning, and enjoying the ride.
This is not to say Kuchar's road hasn't been bumpy. After an early PGA Tour win in 2002, he found woe. He lost his Tour card and was back on the Nationwide Tour in the mid-2000s, a long tumble from the hero of Olympic who seemed the golden boy in every respect.
But Kuchar's story is a testament to perseverance, and to understanding that life is more than a snapshot; it's an entire album of experiences. He worked his way back on Tour, and now has arrived, at age 33, at the place everyone thought he should have been 14 years ago – as a force on the golf course. He simply golfs his ball as good as anyone – 24th in driving accuracy, 16th in greens in regulation, 8th in scrambling, 2nd in scoring average.
Now, the list of players who have won both U.S. Amateurs and Players Championships reads like this: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Hal Sutton, Jerry Pate, Lanny Wadkins … and Matt Kuchar. As the kids might say: Booyah.
Last year, Kuchar posted 19 top-10s in 24 events, an absurd display of consistent ball-striking. Thing is, he didn't win any events. In a world where some say "second place is first loser," Kuchar heard criticism at his inability to snag gold.
So, when he finished his final-round 70 at Sawgrass on Sunday, scooped up his two sons on the 18th green and kissed his wife on Mother's Day, Kuchar didn't mind hearing the question about his lack of wins. In fact, he had the perfect answer for the media asking him.
"You can suck it, big guy," he said, to roars of laughter.
Of course, he was grinning. Grinning wide. That's Matt Kuchar's world, a grin-friendly place. Has been since we saw him at the 1998 U.S. Open. Probably will be again when he comes back to the City by the Bay next month, too.
Scorecard of the week
67-69-68-76 – 8-under 280, Kevin Na, tie-7th, The Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Forgive Na if he spends the next year in the mountains of Tibet, seeking peace, truth and the answers to the golf universe.
Nobody has been given a wet willie by the golf gods more than the 28-year-old Las Vegas resident in the past year.
In 2011, there was his celebrated "Incident at the Texas Open", in which Na made a '16' on the 9th hole after thrashing, hacking, weeping, wailing and gnashing his way out of the Texas brush. Na handled the potentially career-altering embarrassment entirely the right way – with humor and perspective. Upon his return to TPC San Antonio this year, he attacked the brush with a chainsaw for a PGA Tour TV show, then did what man has been doing since pagan times – left an offering to the gods. In this case, his gift was to the golf gods, hanging his golf shirt in the branches.
That's comic gold right there, and makes Na one of the easiest guys to root for.
[ Related: Winners and losers from The Players Championship]
And then came the "Incident at Sawgrass", in which Na contracted a case of the Sergio Garcia Waggles from Hell, and could … not … pull … the … trigger … on … the … golf … shot …
(Still waiting …)
(OK, I think he hit.)
Craziest thing was, Na actually led the golf tournament while battling this insidious disease. His 54-hole lead led to a press conference where he had to explain himself and apologize for his indecision. He blamed some swing changes and, of course, golf's ever-present demons. Imagine that. The guy is 18 holes from a legendary win, and he's apologizing.
So what happens on Sunday? Na tries to speed up his game, and it's a total flop. He bogeyed four out of five holes to finish his front nine and was never a factor from there. Worse, some "fans" – undoubtedly fueled by hops and barley – heckled Na on Sunday, even though he played considerably faster and may have even hurt his game in an effort to not unnerve playing partner Kuchar.
You know what Na needs? He needs a break. Somebody tell him to crank up Van Halen's "Unchained," to hear David Lee Roth intone: "One break … coming up!" Maybe something good will come his way, soon. There's a golf shirt in a Texas tree that says so.
Mulligan of the week
Last week, we used this slice of cyberspace to comment on the Rickie Fowler/Rory McIlroy dynamic; how two 23-year-olds were changing the face of the game, one flat-brimmed cap and torqued-out swing at a time.
Except this week, only one of those youngsters held up his end of the bargain.
Say hello to the man with the hot hand, Fowler. He's so hot, he's bucking to change the cliché from "red hot" to a more Oklahoma State-friendly "orange hot." Fowler followed up his signature Quail Hollow win by bouncing back from a Thursday 72 to post a 69 on Friday and a 66 on Sunday. While McIlroy pondered the footie from England on TV, Fowler created thunder at Sawgrass. His birdie putt on 17 brought him within two strokes and caused Kuchar to feel the need to "stick it to Rickie" – said with a smile, natch – by burying a birdie putt on 16 moments later.
But Fowler looks like he's in the sticking mood himself. His drive and approach on the difficult par-4 18th were the stuff of a hungry man. On a hole where birdie was a near impossibility, Fowler had 7 feet to climb within one of Kuchar and turn Kuchar's smile into a tortured grimace.
Except, Fowler pushed the putt right.
He lamented it on TV afterward, and on Twitter, hitting himself with the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" tweet. He left the putter face open on a straight putt, and missed his chance. To think how juicy a Fowler/Kuchar playoff could have been, and to think how momentous the outside chance of back-to-back wins at Quail Hollow and Sawgrass for Rickie the Kid would have been, let's go back out to 18 green, place Fowler's ball 7 feet from the cup, remind him Johnny Miller says pressure misses with the putter are often from open putter faces and … give that orange-clad man a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
"I'm personally pulling for Tiger to get it going again. I'm not on this bandwagon of picking him apart, to be honest with you." – Johnny Miller, NBC, on Tiger Woods' travails.
That's a classic Johnny Miller two-fer, folks. Not only does Miller try to cozy up to Tiger, but he makes sure to stiff-arm Nick Faldo in the same week Faldo engaged in a little he-said/he-said with Tiger through the media.
As Tiger missed the cut at Quail Hollow last week, Faldo said he sees a player who has lost his self-belief. An enterprising scribe asked Tiger about that at Sawgrass and Tiger, predictably, bristled. He wondered if his critics have a "superpower" that allows them inside his head.
You can see the headlines now: "TIGER TO FALDO: CONTRARY TO YOUR SELF-BELIEF, YOU ARE NOT SPIDERMAN."
Or, "TIGER TO FALDO: GO SEE 'THE AVENGERS', DON'T PRETEND TO BE ONE."
Faldo, however, didn't back down. You wouldn't expect a guy named "Sir" to back away from a duel so quickly. He repeated on The Golf Channel that he says this about Tiger because he's lived it himself, has "walked it," as Faldo said. When you lose your mental edge, Faldo said, many bad things happen.
In a note that may or may not be related, Tiger's Sunday 73 earned him a tie-40th, the first time in his career he's finished 40th or worse in three consecutive events.
Let the gamesmanship continue, gents.
Where do we go from here?
It's time for a Texas two-step, as the Byron Nelson and the Colonial take up the next two weeks of the schedule, before Jack Nicklaus' Memorial brings out the A-list again.
In the 100th year of Byron Nelson's birth, Phil Mickelson has classily decided to play, as will defending champ Keegan Bradley and new Players champion Matt Kuchar. I say Kuchar should pull a fast one on golf fans and show up at the Nelson with a whole new persona, spitting nails like Craig Stadler or staring daggers like Tiger at a photographer who clicks in his backswing. After 71 holes of stare downs, Kuchar can break out the pearly whites and say: "Aw, y'all, you didn't think I could pull this off, did ya?"
And then they'll chant "Kooooooooch … "
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