Matt Kuchar on Sunday won his most prestigious championship since turning pro. Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Ben Curtis, and Martin Laird made him earn it.
Kuchar, 33, shot a 2-under par 70 in the final round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass to finish at 13-under par - good enough for a two-stroke victory over the aforementioned foursome, who tied for second at 11-under.
"It is an amazing feeling to beat the field at The Players Championship," said Kuchar, whose glowing smile and impressive game made him famous at the 1998 Masters, where he played as reigning U.S. Amateur champion. "You think of this as one of the strongest fields in golf. To come out as the champion is an amazing feeling."
Playing in the final pairing with third-round leader Kevin Na, Kuchar might have saved his victory when he made par from a fairway bunker on No. 14. After pulling his tee shot left of center and into the sand, Kuchar hit a searing 190-yard bunker shot onto the green and two-putted for four. It was a hole where par was more than just the proverbial "good score": it was awesome.
Moments after Fowler birdied the par 3 17th, Kuchar responded with a birdie putt from 20 feet on the par 4 16th, enabling him to maintain his three-shot lead going to 17 and its potentially disastrous island green. Kuchar hit the 17th green with his tee shot but three-putted for bogey. Still, he had a two-shot cushion when he arrived on the 18th tee and used a hybrid club to blast his tee shot down the middle and set up his final par.
"I've always felt that my mental game is one of my stronger suits," Kuchar said. "Not a whole lot gets under my skin. I'm good at letting things just roll off and not affect me. I had a great upbringing with a father that pushed me, that challenged me. I had a team at Georgia Tech that gave each other more grief than you can imagine and you had to have a thick skin, you had to be able to handle anything thrown your way. I had a mother who made sure that I also enjoyed the game. And I found the more fun I had on the golf course the better I played."
Kuchar said he was unaffected by Na's case of the full-swing yips in which Na often starts and stops his pre-shot routine, sometimes to the unintentional distraction of his playing partners. Na said he made a conscious effort to play faster Sunday in order not to distract Kuchar. Na shot 4-over 76 and finished the tournament at 8-under and tied for seventh with Bo Van Pelt (69) and Jhonattan Vegas (70).
Zach started the day trailing Na by five strokes and Kuchar by four, but he eagled the par 5 second and birdied No. 4, with a bogey at the third, and made the turn in 34. He had three birdies and a bogey on the back nine, including a clutch four on the par 5 16th to keep him in the mix late. A great lag putt helped him save par on 17 and a 20-footer to save par on 18 left him waiting with Laird at 11-under to see if Kuchar would stumble.
"When you're behind, it's hard to come back here," said Zach, who also finished second at Hilton Head on April 15. "You need help, I guess you would say. Much like a major, par is a good number...You really have to pick up some shots somehow. It's just not easy." Still, he picked up four shots; Kuchar just did not give any back.
Meanwhile, Fowler overcame a 3-over 37 on the front nine to surge back into contention. Wearing his trademark Oklahoma State orange Sunday outfit, last week's Tour winner reeled off four birdies and suffered but one bogey on the back nine. He missed his birdie putt on 18 despite watching playing partner Curtis miss from virtually the same spot on the green moments before. It was only one of several putts that lipped out or barely stayed out.
"I knew that we had to put up a three [at No. 18] to have some sort of chance and hit two great shots in there," Fowler said. "Just pushed the putt a little bit. The hardest putt to have is straight in." Still, Fowler was encouraged by his third straight top-10 finish.
Meanwhile, Kuchar is coming into his own 14 years after his first appearance at Augusta. In 10 starts this season, he has five top-10 finishes, including Sunday's victory and a tie for third at The Masters, where he was in contention on the back nine.
The Players is his fourth victory on Tour and clearly one he savors.
"One of the things that strikes me is walking every day through the Champions Tunnel. Every player does it. For me I can't help but stop and gaze at all the photos going through the Champions Tunnel. And to think that I'm going to be a part of that with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd and Phil Mickelson and David Duval and Tiger Woods. It's all the best of the best. And to feel like I'm going to see my picture up there next year is pretty cool."
NOTES: Kuchar has played in the John Deere Classic six times. His best finish was in 2005 when he tied for 13th and won $65,571...Kuchar's winner's check for The Players was $1,710,000...Kuchar and Johnson both live at Sea Island, Ga., where they and their families frequently socialize...Golf Channel reported Sunday evening that Zach Johnson didn't decline to speak with the media after Saturday's round; he wasn't asked to... Kuchar earned an exemption into the 1998 Masters by winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill No. 4 (Dubsdread) outside Chicago...1997 Quad Cities winner David Toms shot a final round 65 to finish in a tie for 10th...2007 JDC champion Jonathan Byrd shot another even par 72 Sunday to finish at 6-under and T-12.