SOUTHPORT, England — What do you have to do to catch this guy? It’s the thought that had to be racing through the mind of Matt Kuchar on the back nine Saturday at Royal Birkdale, playing alongside the steady Jordan Spieth as the third round of the Open Championship morphed from birdie-fest to a one-on-one duel between himself and his final-pairing foe. No doubt, too, it’s the question that will surface on Sunday, when the pair will once walk side-by-side once more in the final twosome.
For a short while on the 15th hole—emphasis on short—it appeared Kuchar had finally accomplished the seemingly impossible when he rolled in a birdie putt to get to nine under par for the tournament and tie Spieth. Yet only moments later, the week-long leader made a birdie of his own to grab the advantage right back.
Over the final three holes, Kuchar would get no closer. While offsetting a costly double-bogey 6 on the 16th with a birdie on the par-5 17th, Kuchar watched helplessly as Spieth make a 20-footer for birdie on the 18th to get to 11 under. Quickly, the 10-footer Kuchar had for birdie on the home hole became more daunting, and when he lipped the putt out on the left, the knife had twisted. While Kuchar finished with an impressive four-under 66, Spieth now held a three-shot edge after posting a five-under 65.
Afterward, Kuchar insisted that as red numbers ruled the day—highlighted by Branden Grace’s record 62—his focus didn’t lock in solely on his playing partner. “I never felt like I was out there trying to beat Jordan,” Kuchar said. “It's trying to go up against Royal Birkdale and put on the best show you can against the golf course.”
Whether the same will be the case come Sunday, is unclear. The 39-year-old Kuchar, still in search of a major title, says he’ll again be trying to take on Birkdale, first and foremost. But with three strokes separating Kuchar from the trio of players tied for third, the potential for a head-to-head match a là a year ago at Troon between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson is real. If that scenario surfaces, Kuchar will have to decide when and where he’ll become more aggressive if he is to track down the man who’s golf has been virtually flawless this week in England.
Making the decision process more difficult—and perhaps more intriguing—is the fact that at 39, Kuchar might be running out of opportunities to grab his elusive first major. Does that mean Kuchar is less likely to err on the side of caution?
Regardless of the outcome on Sunday, Kuchar says he’s enjoying the moment and appreciating the chance to factor at the game’s oldest championship. His first seven starts in the event he managed to make the cut just once. And in 12 total appearances, he had just one top-10 showing (T-9 in 2012 at Lytham).
“Walking up the 18th, the last group Saturday of a British Open, having the stands and the people cheer, it's completely unique,” Kuchar said. “It's completely different than any tournament we play in the United States, and just kind of soaked it in for a second, said, ‘This is pretty cool to be here walking up the last hole of a British Open.’ And it was just a neat moment.”
It could be again on Sunday, particularly if he can solve the riddle of how to catch that guy.