After eight consecutive outstanding seasons on the PGA Tour from 2010 to ’17, Matt Kuchar turned 40 in the summer of 2018 and did not have much to celebrate about on the golf course.
Kuchar’s 2017-18 season was his least successful in almost a decade, and resulted in a lot more misses than hits on his annual to-do list.
He failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup team, the first time he had missed it or the Presidents Cup since 2009. He did not earn a spot in the field at the Tour Championship at East Lake after competing in the event each of the previous eight years. He didn’t even make it to the third of the three Playoffs events leading up to East Lake, finishing a distant 76th in the FedExCup standings after a poor final round in the Playoffs event in Boston.
After his second win in his last three PGA Tour starts Sunday in Hawaii, Kuchar is back to where he is accustomed, sitting second in the FedExCup standings with a virtually guaranteed return to East Lake on his itinerary. A spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team is also a near certainty, and he has earned a well-deserved two-week working vacation to Hawaii for a second straight year after an absence from the Aloha State since 2015.
Kuchar ended a winless streak of some 4 ½ years with a victory last November in Mayakoba to earn a spot in the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua the week before his victory in Honolulu, which raised his career win total to nine.
His win in the Sony Open in Hawaii capped a whirlwind three months of travel for the St. Simons Island resident, who ended 2018 with four tournaments in four weeks in Las Vegas, Mexico and two in Australia, skipping his hometown PGA Tour event in the process to compete Down Under as part of the U.S. World Cup team. He began 2019 with two weeks in Hawaii and will do so again next year.
Kuchar turned in an outstanding performance at Waialae CC, putting together scores of 63-63-66-66 for a 22-under par 258 total and a 4-stroke victory over Andrew Putnam, who kept pace with Kuchar for 67 holes before some superb ball striking by the former Georgia Tech great enabled him to pull away over the closing holes.
Putnam began the final round two shots off Kuchar’s lead in second place, but moved in front when Kuchar bogeyed three of the first five holes Sunday.
“It was not the start I wanted by any means,” said Kuchar, who had made only one bogey through his first 54 holes before a stumbling Sunday start. “I was pretty disappointed to give up a few shots, particularly the three-putt on 4 and with a wedge in my hands making bogey on 5. I thought, ‘Man, that was just not at all the start I was looking for’.”
Kuchar did not let his shaky start get to him, and held steady until he broke away from Putnam over the closing holes.
“I knew I was playing good golf,” Kuchar observed. “I knew if I stayed the course and continued just plodding along and not letting that get the best of me, that some good stuff was going to happen. I started playing really good golf, but didn’t see any putts fall until the ninth. Made that putt on 9 to stay within one of Andrew, and then played some great golf from then.”
Both Putnam and Kuchar hit their second shots on the par-5 ninth into a greenside bunker, and Putnam almost holed out for eagle before Kuchar hit his within 10 feet of the hole. Kuchar made his birdie putt to remain one shot off Putnam’s lead, and pulled even when he stuck his short second to the par-4 10th within four feet for another birdie.
Kuchar closed out his round with birdies on six of his last 10 holes, taking the lead with a 9-footer for birdie at the 12th. Putnam briefly regained a tie at the top with a birdie at the difficult par-4 13th, but fell out of a share when he bogeyed the less-demanding 14th. Kuchar expanded his lead on each of the next two holes, hitting his approach shots within 12 and 11 feet and holing both putts for birdie.
With a three-stroke leading heading up the par-5 18th, Kuchar enjoyed the rare experience of a victory stroll on the final hole, with almost all his previous eight victories requiring some serious work on the 72nd hole to claim the champion’s trophy.
“I had never had a tournament with a three-shot lead going into 18 where you kind of feel like it was my tournament and I could really enjoy the 18th hole. To be able to know the tournament was wrapped up, enjoy that walk, it was special.”
This is just the second time Kuchar has won twice in a season, matching his feat in 2013 when he won both the WGC Match Play Championship and the Memorial.
“I’m tickled, thrilled to have won two events this early in the year,” Kuchar said. “To have won two out of three starts on the PGA Tour is mind boggling to me. This absolutely sets up the year to be in great position for the FedExCup. There is a lot of year left and a lot of great things that are out there to be done.”
Kuchar admitted he was “pretty frustrated” at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season.
“I was definitely disappointed. There were some big things that I missed out on.
“I didn’t ever give up hope. I think the frustrating thing was, I felt like I was doing some good things and just not seeing results. That sometimes is hard to take, when you think you’re on the right course and the right path and not seeing results, to stick the course.”
From 2010 to ’17, Kuchar was perhaps the most consistently successful player on the PGA Tour, ending the regular seasons 9th, 12th, 9th, 2nd, 4th, 26th, 18th and 15th in the FedExCup standings before falling to 64th last year.
Kuchar compiled 74 top 10s in those eight seasons won five times during that stretch – the 2010 Playoffs event in New York, the 2012 Players, the Match Play and Memorial in 2013 and the Heritage in 2014. It was 4 ½ years before he won again, but he now has two victories in two months and is again among the FedExCup leaders, trailing only fellow two-time 2018-19 winner Xander Schauffele.
Thanks to the Hawaiian Open winner’s check of $1,152,000, Kuchar has exceeded $46 million, good for 10th on the PGA Tour career money list. He also improved from 32 to 22 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Kuchar was one of 10 golfers with Georgia ties to finish among the top 25 in the Hawaiian Open, including six golfers who also reside on St. Simons Island.
Hudson Swafford, a former Georgia Bulldog and St. Simons resident, had his best tournament in two years, tying for third at 263 after a final round 64. Swafford improved from 117 in the FedExCup standings to 43.
Davis Love, also a St. Simons resident, had his best finish since his win in Greensboro in 2015. The 54-year-old Love closed with scores of 64-65 to take seventh at 16-under 264. He moved up almost 100 spots in the FedExCup standings, jumping from 178 to 82.
Augusta native Charles Howell continued his long track record of success in the Hawaiian Open, shooting 66-64-66 the last three days to tie for eighth at 265. Howell, who was No. 1 in the FedExCup after his win in the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC in the final event of 2018, is fifth on the points list after strong showings in both Hawaii events the last two weeks.
Patton Kizzire , the Hawaiian Open champion in 2018, tied for 13th in his title defense and moved up from 43 to 31 on the points list. Kizzire also won at Mayakoba in late 2017, with Kuchar matching those two victories this season, giving St. Simons residents the last four victories in those two tournaments. Also tying for 13th was 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, who led Augusta State to back-to-back NCCAA titles in 2010 and ’11. Reed moved up from 64 to 46 in the standings.
Keith Mitchell, like Swafford a former UGA golfer now living at St. Simons, tied for 16th at 268, improving from 81 to 59. Mitchell shot 63 in the third round to began Sunday tied for third, but closed with a 72 after shooting 4-over on the front nine. He did not make a birdie in the final round until the 15th hole.
Stewart Cink was among the leaders after 36 holes following a 62 in the second round, but shot only 1-under on the weekend and tied for 20th at 269. Cink gained 29 spots in the FedExCup standings, improving from 113 to 84. Also tying for 29th was J.T. Poston of St. Simons, who moved up from 118 to 88.
Harris English, Swafford’s UGA teammate and also a St. Simons resident, tied for 25th at 270 with scores of 68-68-67-67. He played his last 10 holes Sunday in 5-under in a pairing with Reed, who defeated English in the match that decided the 2011 NCAA title. The two were teammates in Athens for one season before Reed was dropped from the team and transferred to Augusta.