He pumped his fist after draining a birdie putt on Number 16, his fourth of the day. He high-fived a young fan as he walked to the tee box. The crowd cheered his name, and he acknowledged their admiration with a smile and wave.
No, this was not Phil Mickelson. Not today. It was the affable Matt Kuchar.
Starting the day one stroke back of 54-hole leader Kevin Na, Kuchar was right where he needed to be – in second place. After all, the leader entering Sunday had not raised the trophy going back to 2007. And, given the brutal finishing holes of the Stadium Course, it’s not hard to figure out why players melt down.
Yet, with a three-stroke lead late on Sunday, Kuchar seemed as cool as an ice cube. He avoided the water on the legendary island hole 17th – no small feat (ask Angel Cabrera, who looked like Tin Cup on the way to a nine) – and three-putted from across the green for bogey. On the Par-4 18th, he curled a perfect drive up the right side of the fairway, and landed a long approach shot on the front of the green to all-but seal victory.
On the way up the 18th fairway, Kuchar and his caddie smiled and chatted, but not about what shot Kuchar would hit – about the NBA playoffs. Not even Kobe Bryant would have been that relaxed on the way to a championship.
The key for Kuchar was putting together solid approach shots to small targets, which he did well the entire weekend. For the tournament, Kuchar hit an impressive 73.6% of his greens in regulation.
Given the layout of the greens, control with irons was paramount. Misplaced shots found their way off the sloped edges of the undersized greens to the rough or collection areas. Even if the shot held, missing the target most likely resulted in a putt over a hump or down a steep grade.
Despite these challenges, Kuchar managed to dodge the proverbial blowup hole, keeping double-bogey or worse off his scorecard the entire tournament and avoiding back-to-back bogeys. In doing so, he managed to fend off some hard-charging players. Zach Johnson (68), Martin Laird (67), Rickie Fowler (70), and Ben Curtis (68) all made strong runs Sunday and flirted with the top of the leaderboard at different times to finish at -11 for the tournament, while Luke Donald (66) was the early leader in the clubhouse at -9. On 18, Laird pulled his approach shot near the edge of the water and bogeyed, while Fowler lipped out a birdie putt inside 20 feet.
Meanwhile, Na, who drew criticism from the gallery for his constant waggling and overall slow pace of play this weekend, faded quickly after a good start. After making birdie on the second hole, he made bogeys on 5, 6, 8, and 9 to drop to -9. A birdie on the Par-5 11th briefly brought him back into the conversation before he followed with back-to-back bogeys to drop him off the top of the leaderboard. His day ended with him taking a rip with a fairway wood at his ball sitting on the cart path on 18 among the gallery, which rolled up to the front of the green. It was a fitting conclusion to a bizarre and controversial tournament for the 28-year old.
For Kuchar, his fourth career PGA victory is the crowning achievement of a career that began in 2000, and saw him spend time on the Nationwide Tour in 2006. The $1.71 million winner’s payout should keep that smile on his face for a long time to come.