AUGUSTA, Ga. – Some guys have career-defining seasons. Matt Kuchar is in the midst of a redefining one. For the last six months, Kuchar has been embellishing his resume with a curious elixir of conquest and controversy, and he appears poised to perhaps initiate additional amendments in the 83rd Masters Tournament.
With a vacillating 3-under-par 69 Friday at Augusta National Golf Club, Kuchar, with that sly smile always at the ready, is in contention in the year’s first major, completing 36 holes in four-under 140, which is well in contention on a congested leaderboard.
This development should not be a surprise, not when Kuchar already has two victories this season as well as a runner-up finish to Kevin Kisner in the recent WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, his fourth top five in 11 starts.
And yet it’s very much of a surprise for a guy who turned 40 last June and hadn’t won in more than four years before he broke through in November at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico – a win that brought relief before it relieved him of some of his golden-boy image. But through the ensuing spat with a caddie played out on social media and then a defiant non-concession during a match against Sergio Garcia two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, Kuchar has continued to excel and sustain his dream of putting a major – particularly this major – on his list of accomplishments.
Although that’s clearly been underway in recent months.
That nasty streak for which he is known among his teammates on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams – Kuchar can be devastatingly acerbic – he has applied to his game, with decidedly satisfactory results.
“It’s been a great year. I’ve been awfully pleased with how I have played. I was awfully excited about getting here,” said Kuchar, who shot eight under on the weekend to rally to a T-7 in last week’s Valero Texas Open, yet another example of his consistency this season. “It’s a lot of things that have gotten a little bit better, and the little things start adding up in this game.
“I‘d love to keep it going. I’d love to make a run. I know this place can get difficult. But I certainly feel good about the state of my game.”
Even as the state of his reputation has taken a few hits. When word leaked out that Kuchar had paid a local caddie in Mexico just $5,000 for his week’s work – as Kuchar earned $1.296 million – he faced relentless criticism until he agreed to pop for an extra $50,000 and coughed up a sincere mea culpa as a bonus.
In the quarterfinals of the Dell Match Play, a visibly irritated Garcia carelessly tried to backhand an inches-long putt into the cup after missing a seven-footer for par to win the hole. Kuchar likely would have conceded it, but he didn’t have a chance. Rules do not allow for a retroactive concession and he declined to concede the next hole as a make-good. It was ruthless, but he didn’t act outside the rules.
This may not be Kuchar’s last chance to win a major and it might not even be his best chance. Perhaps that occurred two years ago when he led a faltering Jordan Spieth by a stroke with five holes to play at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale and then watched helplessly as Spieth executed a ferocious comeback to steal the Claret Jug.
Kuchar must have learned a lot that day from his steely younger peer. Clearly, an edginess has emerged from behind his toothy smile.
But that smile is the same one that so endeared the patrons here in 1998 when, as U.S. Amateur champion and the successor to Tiger Woods who had won the previous three in a row, Kuchar finished at even-par 288. Looking bashful but composed playing alongside Woods, the reigning Masters champion, Kuchar acquitted himself splendidly with a 72. He went on to finish T-21, earning low amateur honors and an invitation the following year.
He left that day thinking he had the tools to win a green jacket. And he has come close on a few occasions with a trio of top-five finishes, including T-4 two years ago.
“I never thought that I was meant to win here, but I certainly felt like it was possible,” said the Florida native, who was an All-American at Georgia Tech and now makes his home in Sea Island, Ga. “Sure, that was a magical time for me [in 1998], and I feel a special connection to this place. And then I have my Georgia ties.”
That no one was able to separate himself from the field surprised Kuchar, who is playing in his 13th Masters. “I thought it was soft enough and slow enough to be gettable for the guys already at the top,” he said.
He could have gotten more himself, but his usual steadiness abandoned him. Four bogeys offset five birdies and an eagle at the par-5 13th that he earned after rifling a hybrid to within two feet of the hole.
“Four bogeys is more than I’m used to. I’d love to take some of the bogeys away, but I played some nice golf in between,” he said. “I have to be pleased with where I’m sitting.”
Well, sure, because the dream is still alive. Oh, he understands that his dream is not special. It is not unique. “It’s a dream that I had before I ever played here,” he said. “It’s only gotten stronger since my first Masters.
“Again, I don’t know if it’s meant to be, but in my dreams it feels like it’s meant to be.”