After 4 ½ years without a victory on the PGA Tour, Matt Kuchar collected his eighth career title Sunday in Mexico, taking the Mayakoba Classic despite a shaky showing down the stretch.
Kuchar, a standout in college at Georgia Tech and one of the PGA Tour’s top players for the past decade, enjoyed an exceptional week at the Caribbean resort, setting course records for 36, 54 and 72 holes. He led by as many as four shots on the back nine Sunday, but back-to-back 3-putts at 14 and 15 reduced his lead to one before he closed with three straight pars.
The victory follows the poorest season of Kuchar’s career since he established himself as one of the game’s best players following a victory in a Fall Series event in 2009. Kuchar qualified for the Tour Championship eight straight years between 2010 and ’17, but fell outside the top 75 last year.
Ordinarily, Kuchar would be celebrating his victory at home on St. Simons Island, where this week’s PGA Tour event is being held. Instead, he jetted off to Australia following his victory to compete in this week’s Australian Open and next week’s World Cup, which is also being played in Australia.
“It feels extra sweet having had to suffer through a year of not playing great in 2018,” Kuchar said after his victory Sunday. “Being four years removed from my last victory, I realize how difficult it is to win on the PGA Tour.”
Kuchar turned 40 during his disappointing showing during the 2017-18 season, and admitted to having some negative thoughts about his ability to continue to compete at the top level of the PGA Tour.
“I’ve thought the other side,” he offered. “The kids are getting younger and stronger and it’s more and more challenging for a guy that plays my style of golf to win and win multiple times.”
Kuchar showed no signs of age or potentially declining skills in his win at Mayakoba, leading the event wire-to-wire and setting a number of scoring records.
He opened with a 7-under 64 to share first place with a pair of PGA Tour novices, and followed with another 64 Friday to take a 2-shot lead over Cameron Champ, already a winner in his rookie season and the newest entrant into the discussion of who is the longest hitter in the game.
Kuchar roared out of the starting blocks Friday with five consecutive birdies beginning at the second hole, and showed no signs of letting up on Saturday when he carded at least seven birdies for the third straight day, firing a 64 to expand his lead to four shots heading to the final round.
Since his career rebirth in late 2009, Kuchar has developed the reputation as a player who typically starts faster than he finishes. His share of the opening round lead at Mayakoba was the 10th time he has been in that position during his career, and he held the 36-hole lead for the 12th time on the PGA Tour.
However, he converted those opportunities into only one victory in each category, but his record when leading after 54 holes was a little more encouraging. Kuchar was 2-of-6 in holding on to the lead after beginning the final round at least tied for first, and improved that mark to 3-for-7 Sunday by the narrowest of margins after appearing headed for an easy win for most of the day.
Kuchar collected a pair of birdies on the opening nine and added two more on holes 11and 13 to retain the 4-shot lead he held at the beginning of the day. He rolled in a birdie putt from off the green at 11 and used a deft chip at the par-5 13th to set up his fourth birdie of the day to match that of a surging Danny Lee, who emerged as his main competitor down the stretch.
But Kuchar came up well short with his birdie effort from the off the green on the 14th and missed his par attempt, and also three-putted for bogey on the 15th. Lee, playing in the group min front of Kuchar, also bogeyed the 15th, but chipped in for birdie at 16 to cut his deficit to one.
Kuchar settled down with three solid pars coming in, finishing with a 69 for a 22-under 262 total, one in front of Lee, who closed with a 65. Kuchar ended the week all over the tournament record books, either sharing or holding the scoring records outright for 36, 54 and 72 holes. His 262 total is the lowest in tournament history, edging out the 263 shot by fellow St. Simons resident Harris English in 2014.
English and Kuchar are two-time winners of the Shark Shootout, taking the title in the unofficial team event in 2013 and ’16.
Since Kuchar collected his seventh PGA Tour title on Hilton Head Island in 2014, his only other individual victory came in 2015 in Fiji, one of the many overseas locales where he has teed it up. Kuchar also was part of the U.S. winning team in the 2011 World Cup in Australia with Gary Woodland, and will be pairing with Kyle Stanley next week.
He heads to Australia off his best tournament showing in some time, but one that ended on something less than a high note.
“I certainly made it exciting coming in,” he said after playing his last five holes in 2-over. “I would have liked to have been able to five-or-six putt the final green. Winning out here is so difficult. The strength of field every week is awfully good.”
With his victory, Kuchar claimed the first place check of $1,296,000 to boost his career earnings to just over $45 million. The win came more than 16 ½ years after his first career win in the Honda Classic in 2002, his first full season on the PGA Tour.
Kuchar, who won the U.S. Amateur in 1997 while a member of the Georgia Tech golf team, was the low amateur in both the Masters and U.S. Open and was the 1998 Haskins Award winner as the top collegiate golfer in the country.
He graduated from Tech in 2000 and after briefly considering retaining his amateur status, turned pro in 2000, too late to attend qualifying school. Kuchar began 2001 with no status on the PGA Tour, but tied for third in a tournament in Vancouver and several weeks later finished T2 in the Texas Open to earn a spot on the tour for the 2002 season.
Kuchar tied for fourth in Hawaii in his first start as a PGA Tour member, and two months later won the Honda Classic in his native state of Florida. But after a strong rookie season, Kuchar struggled for all of 2003, and by 2006 was playing on what is now the Web.com Tour in hopes of regaining his PGA Tour status.
With a win and two runner-up finishes on the Nationwide Tour, Kuchar was back on the PGA Tour for good in 2007. After respectable seasons in ’07 and ’08, Kuchar captured his first PGA Tour victory in more than seven years in the Fall Series event at Turning Stone Resort in New York, and for the past decade, since, Kuchar has been one of the game’s elite players.
Kuchar picked up a win in 2011 in the FedExCup Playoffs event in New York, one of 11 top-10 finishes that season, five of them third place showings or better. Kuchar has been a top-10 machine since his 2009 win, and his victory in Mexico was the 99th top 10 of his PGA Tour career.
Between 2010 and ’17, he never finished outside the final top 20 in the FedExCup standings. Beginning with his 2010 win in the Playoffs, most of Kuchar’s victories have come in high profile events – the 2012 Players, the WGC Match Play Championship and Memorial in 2013 and the Heritage Classic in 2014 on one of the tour’s most highly regarded courses.
After five straight seasons inside the FedExCup top10, Kuchar fell into the teens the next three years and was winless in all three. He continued to rack up top 10s and contend on a regular basis, but the level of his play slipped noticeably last year, and resulted in his missing the Ryder Cup as a player after qualifying for it and the Presidents Cup the previous eight years.
The victory in Mexico was Kuchar’s first step back to his status as one of the game’s bets, with the win moving up him to fifth in the FedExCup standings and to 29th in the World Golf Rankings.
Kuchar will be in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in early January for the first time since 2015, and has guaranteed himself a 10th straight invitation to the Masters, after being in danger of missing out in 2019, He began last week 40th in the OWGR, dangerously close to the top 50 cutoff at the end of the year for an invite.
The 40-year-old Kuchar will be looking for his first major title in 2019 beginning with the Masters, where he has three top-5 finishes since 2012. His best finish in a major was second in the 2017 British Open at Birkdale, when Jordan Spieth roared past him with a sensational finish.