Since 2009, Matt Kuchar has been arguably the most consistently successful player on the PGA Tour.
During that stretch, Kuchar has qualified for the Tour Championship seven straight times, represented the U.S. on either the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team every year since 2010 and scored six of his seven career PGA Tour wins.
Among his victories are a Players Championship, WGC Match Play and a Playoffs event, along with wins on two of the most respected courses that host PGA Tour events – Muirfield Village (Memorial) and Sea Pines (Heritage).
But Kuchar, one of a number of PGA Tour pros who resides on St. Simons Island, has never been able to transfer his overall success into a major championship,
Prior to last week’s British Open, Kuchar had compiled eight career top 10s in majors, half of them in the Masters, where he made his first serious run at a major title, finishing two shots back in 2012 in a tie for third and was a fast-finishing fourth this year.
In the final round of Sunday’s British Open, Kuchar found himself with the outright lead after beginning the day three behind 54-hole leader Jordan Spieth. Kuchar took the lead after a wildly errant tee shot by Spieth on the 13th hole resulted in a bogey and an interminable delay for a ruling to determine where he was able to take his drop.
Spieth had to scramble for bogey to fall only one behind Kuchar, beginning an incredible stretch of golf. Kuchar played the next four holes in 2-under with birdies on the only two par 5s at Birkdale. But Spieth more than matched him, going birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to make up three shots on Kuchar and take a two-stroke lead going to the final hole.
When Spieth hit the green with his approach on the par-4 18th, Kuchar was forced to fire at the flag in hopes of a birdie that would force Spieth to two-putt for par from long range, but his second shot wound up in a difficult lie in a greenside bunker for an eventual bogey.
Spieth parred the hole for a final round 69, leaving him with a 3-shot margin over Kuchar, who also closed with a 69. It was the third major title for Spieth following back-to-back wins in the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, and leaves him a PGA Championship title shy of a career Grand Slam.
At the age of 39, Kuchar faces the prospect of concluding an outstanding career without a victory in one of golf’s four major championships, but has a few historical precedents, one of them quite recent, to provide him with a little hope.
Tom Kite won his only major at the age of 42 and Sergio Garcia was 37 when he captured his first major title earlier this year in Augusta. Kuchar will likely have another opportunity to join Kite and Garcia on the list of major champions. But even if he doesn’t, that will not seriously detract from what has otherwise been an admirable career for someone who wasn’t certain he was going to purse the life of a tour pro.
Kuchar took his runner-up finish to Spieth hard, but returned to the U.S. with the knowledge that he did not lose the British Open, but that Spieth won it.
“It’s crushing. It hurts,” Kuchar told the tournament’s media contingent after the final round. “And it’s an excitement and a thrill to have played well and put up a battle. You don’t get that many opportunities, and to be this close, to taste it with five holes to go, it’s a hard one to sit back and take.
“I can only control what I do, how I play. Jordan is a great champion and certainly played that way.”
Kuchar and Spieth shared the first round lead with recent U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka at 5-under 65, with Spieth moving two ahead of Kuchar after a second round 69. The two were paired in the final twosome on Saturday and separated themselves from the field, with Spieth carding another 65 and Kuchar almost matching him with a 66.
The quality of play on the front nine in the final round did not match that seen over the first three days, especially by Spieth, who dropped back into a tie with Kuchar after shooting 3-over going out with four bogeys. Kuchar performed considerably better with two birdies and several close calls, playing the front nine in even par to gain a share of the lead.
Kuchar was mostly a spectator on the 13th while Spieth traversed up and down a hill that separated the hole from the practice range below, where he eventually took his drop. Kuchar hit his second shot on the green on the par 4 before the long wait for Spieth’s ruling.
“We made ourselves comfy and told some stories,” said Kuchar while Spieth took some 20 minutes to assess his situation before finally hitting his third shot.
“Certainly it was not anything I was ever going to be upset with,” Kuchar said. “It’s a very difficult situation.”
The delay did not negatively impact the play of Kuchar, who almost holed his birdie putt on 13 and was 2-under for the next four holes. But Spieth was magical over that stretch, making a terrific save for bogey on 13, almost holing his tee shot for birdie on 14 and holing monster putts for eagle on 15 and birdie on 16 before matching Kuchar’s birdie in less dramatic fashion on the par-5 17th.
Kuchar has been a major figure on the American golf scene for two decades, beginning with his outstanding career at Georgia Tech in the late 1990s. Kuchar received the Haskins Award as the nation’s top college golfer in 1998, when he earned low amateur honors at both the Masters (T21) and U.S. Open (T14).
He earned invitations to the two championships with a victory in the 1997 U.S. Amateur, one year after he lost in the semifinals to Tiger Woods.
Kuchar, a member of the 1999 Walker Cup team, did not immediately turn pro after graduating from Georgia Tech in 2000, going into the financial services field. He turned pro late that year – too late to compete in Q-school – and began playing on the 2001 PGA Tour with no status, relying on sponsor invitations.
Thanks to second and third place finishes in the span of a month late in the 2001 season, Kuchar earned exempt status for 2002, and picked up his first professional win early that year in his native Florida in the Honda Classic.
Kuchar appeared to be headed for the same type of stardom he enjoyed as amateur, but he did not emerge as a player of consequence on the PGA Tour until late in the 2009 season. His career path took a sharp downward turn after his victory in the Honda, and included a stop on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour in 2006, where he collected his second win as a pro and placed 10th on the money list to return to the PGA Tour in 2007.
The first two years back were mostly uneventful for Kuchar, but he finally began displaying the talent he flashed as an amateur late in 2009 season, playing well in the FedExCup Playoffs before scoring a victory in a Fall Series event at the Turning Stone Resort.
Kuchar continued his excellent play in 2010, but this time he did it for an entire season. He finished the year with 11 top 10s – two in majors, two in WGC events and two in the Playoffs, a win in New Jersey and a third place finish in Chicago. He ended the year second in the FedExCup standings after making his first of seven straight appearances in the Tour Championship, likely to be eight in a row in two months.
Since then, Kuchar has finished in the top 10 in the final FedExCup standings three times and in the top 20 on the other three occasions. He is currently 17th after placing second at Birkdale, which improved his Official World Golf Ranking to 18th. Beginning with the 2010 season, Kuchar has compiled 70 top-10 finishes, missed just 14 cuts and won several high profile events, none of them majors, however.
Among Kuchar’s most cherished achievements was a third place finish in the 2016 Olympics, which earned him a bronze medal after a spectacular final round. Kuchar took as much satisfaction from the bronze as he would have from the gold, and his obvious joy in his achievement spoke volumes about his love for the sport and his contentment with his status in golf.
Although he has never won a major, Kuchar has also never “lost” one, which players like Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy all have.
Kuchar lacks the power game of players like Johnson and McIlroy and does not possess the putting wizardry of Spieth, but has managed to amass more than $40 million in career earnings, placing him 13th on the list.
Whether or not he ever captures his first major title, Kuchar will likely exit the PGA Tour the way he entered it, with a smile on his face and a strong sense of accomplishment for all he has achieved.