When Matt Kuchar arrived on Hilton Head Island for the Heritage Classic, even his famously sunny disposition had to be a little cloudy.
Kuchar had played the previous three weeks on the PGA Tour, finishing fifth or better in each tournament. He took home $1.3 million for his efforts, but also made the drive from Augusta to the South Carolina coast with the knowledge that he could have also captured a tournament title or two.
Three straight top-five finishes represent an exceptional accomplishment on the PGA Tour, but Kuchar ended the three events with the realization that he probably should have won in San Antonio, definitely should have won in Houston, and was in position to win the Masters.
But Kuchar, a former Georgia Tech All-American who lives on St. Simons Island, did not finish strong in any of the three, and instead of adding a seventh PGA Tour title, had to be content with a whole lot of cash.
Kuchar shared the first round lead in the Heritage after an opening 66, but followed with scores of 73 and 70 and was four back of Luke Donald heading to the final round, his largest 54-hole deficit in a while.
The previous three Sundays, Kuchar had carded a 75 in San Antonio, a 72 in Houston and a 74 in Augusta. A score like that at Harbour Town might have dropped Kuchar out of the top 20. But after three weeks of final round disappointments, Kuchar was ready for a little celebration to stamp this Easter Sunday as something special.
Kuchar got off to what he termed “a nice start” with a birdie on the opening hole and followed with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 second. A birdie putt of some 20 feet on the difficult par-3 fourth got him to 3-under, and at that point, Kuchar said he “knew it was going to be a really good day.”
After scrambling for par at the fifth, Kuchar put himself in birdie range at the sixth, and added an unexpected birdie at the eighth, one of the toughest holes at Harbour Town.
‘A fantastic birdie,” Kuchar said. “It’s a hole you just like to get away with par there,”
Kuchar closed out his spectacular opening nine with an easy birdie at the short, par-4 ninth. With Donad making double bogey a few holes behind him, Kuchar found himself in the lead again on the back nine.
A birdie putt of some 15 feet at the 10th improved Kuchar to 7-under for the day and increased his lead. From that point, Kuchar carded a string of pars, but Donald came back with a pair of birdies early on the back nine to close within one of the lead.
Kuchar was poised for what could have been a clinching birdie at the par-3 17th, hitting his tee shot inside five feet. But instead of walking to the 18th tee with a two-stroke lead, Kuchar found himself in a tie with Donald after an inexplicable three-putt from close range.
“I little shocked that that missed,” Kuchar said of failed attempt for par. “But I think I did a great job of shaking it off on 18. Hit my best tee shot of the day – of the week – there on 18.”
The famous 18th at Harbour Town was playing into the wind, and Kuchar’s approach came up just short in the front bunker.
“There are a lot worse places to be on 18 than the front bunker,” Kuchar observed. “I knew it was at least an easy par. My bunker game is good. No problem.”
Two weeks earlier in Houston, Kuchar watched as Matt Jones holed out a shot from off the green on the first playoff hole for a birdie and a victory over Kuchar. This time, it was Kuchar delivering the winning blow, although Donald did not witness it.
“I heard the crowd go crazy and the thing disappeared. I went crazy myself. It was just an incredible feeling.”
Donald needed a chip-in of his own on 18 to force a playoff, but just missed, resulting in his fifth finish of second or third in the last seven tournaments at Hilton Head.
That Kuchar could come back after three straight disappointing finishes is a testament to his resilience.
“I think I do a really good job of shaking things off. I think I do a great job of accepting there’s not much I can do about that because it’s now behind me.”
After the close calls the previous three weeks, Kuchar wanted another shot at victory, and this time he capitalized on his opportunity.
“It’s awfully sweet to have a chance. After things didn’t work out in San Antonio, just give me another chance. It’s amazing to have four straight weeks of chances on four completely different golf courses.”
Kuchar’s first chance at victory this season came in San Antonio, where he was the lone player of any stature at the top of the leader board in the final round. Kuchar trailed non-winner Steven Bowditch by three after 54 holes, but pulled even midway through the final day before playing the back nine in 3-over without a birdie. He tied for fourth, two shots behind Bowditch, who won despite closing with a 76.
Going to the final round in Houston, Kuchar was four in front, and was in position to win after three birdies on the back nine. But he bogeyed two of his last three holes, including the 18th after hitting his approach shot in the water. That forced him to get up-and-down for bogey to get into a playoff with non-winner Jones, who holed a long birdie putt on the 18th to pull within one of Kuchar.
A Saturday 68 in the Masters got Kuchar within one shot of the lead going to the final round, and he briefly pulled into a tie for first when he birdied the par-5 second and chipped in for another birdie at the third.
But Kuchar 4-putted for double bogey on the fourth and never recovered, closing out a depressing Sunday in Augusta when he bogeyed 17 and 18 to tie for fifth, his third straight top-10 finish in the Masters.
“I believe that if I keep plugging away, things are going to go my way. You get some good breaks, you get some bad breaks. But as long as you accept it, and look forward to whatever is next, I think things tend to go your way.”
Following his recent disappointments and after three-putting from inside five feet on the 17th, Kuchar was undeterred on the 18th tee at Harbour Town.
“I didn’t go, ‘Man, this is four weeks in a row I might not win a tournament’. That’s not part of the deal. I’ve got 18 to play. My focus went solely to that.”
It was another high profile victory for Kuchar, adding to his wins in the Match Play Championship, the Players, a FedExCup Playoffs event (the Barclays) and the Memorial Tournament, all since the 2010 season. He has seven career PGA Tour victories.
After his victory, Kuchar is third in both the FedExCup standings and Ryder Cup points list, and moved up to fifth in the World Golf Ranking, a fraction of a point behind Masters champion Bubba Watson.