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Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Kuchar has what it takes

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

At Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open, players will get every aspect of their games tested by the Donald Ross design. Most of them will make foolish decisions along the way that will rob them of a chance at winning golf's sternest contest. The turtle back greens will give them fits. The sandy waste areas will provide inconsistent and troublesome lies. Yet few players in the field will be better prepared for those challenges than Matt Kuchar.

It's not because of his 46 top-10s, including five wins, since 2010 or because the 35-year-old former U.S. Amateur champion has already this season amassed nine top-10s, including a win in April at the RBC Heritage. These are just statistics that have lifted him to fifth in the world ranking. Kuchar's readiness for Pinehurst has more to do with his acute understanding of his limitations and ability to pull off certain shots. It's a more laid-back, pragmatic, business-like approach to scoring.

Where more physically gifted players such as Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson may try the miraculous shot, Kuchar mostly plays the percentages. It's not the most glamorous golf, but it's the reason he has been the most consistent player in the world over the past five years.

Matt Kuchar
Matt Kuchar manages his misses as well as anyone on tour.
"I think I understand shot value better than most tour players," said the seven-time tour winner. "If I hit a 5-iron from 200 yards and I have a 30-footer on the green, I'm not going to be pissed off. I see some guys get mad because they have not hit the perfect shot.

"How many times am I going to stick it to five feet from 200 yards? It's just not going to have much. If I hit a wedge from 80 yards to 30 feet I will be disappointed, but I will get over it pretty quickly."

Chris O'Connell, who has been Kuchar's swing instructor since 2006, believes his pupil's command of shot value sets him apart from most tour players.

"I would call Matt Kuchar a golfer," O'Connell said. "He's not someone out there trying to play golf swing or trying to play perfect.

"Matt understands that if he hits a 5-iron on the green that he has gained shots on the field, because guys with five irons are going to miss the green more than they are going to hit it. He really knows where to pick his spots and know where the odds are stacked against him. Matt probably manages his misses better than anybody on tour."

Kuchar will be playing in a U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 for the third time. He missed the cut in his two previous visits to the North Carolina venue, yet he is looking forward to the new look of the Donald Ross masterpiece that recently underwent a restoration led by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

"It will be interesting to see a U.S. Open without rough," Kuchar said. "It sounds like the sandy wiregrass areas will be enough of a penalty that driving will still be important. It will be different but I bet the guy who wins has driven it well.

"Even if you drive it in the fairway, you have your work cut out for you on those greens."

Three of Kuchar's six top-10s in the majors have come at the Masters, where he has finished inside the top 10 the past three years, including a tie for fifth this year. His best finish in a U.S. Open was a tie for sixth at Pebble Beach in 2010. With his consistent all-around game, he is now regularly mentioned as a pre-tournament favorite at majors.

But for Kuchar, who turns 36 on June 21, the added media exposure doesn't mean that he has plans to alter his attitude toward his career.

"I show up knowing now that I have a pretty good chance of being in contention and I think that my game has proven itself that I can play well on any different sort of golf course," he said. "I show up thinking I have a good chance of playing well, but as far as expecting to win, I go in trying to not pay too much attention to outcomes and stay more focused on the details."

Masters week is always difficult for Kuchar because his parents and grandparents convene on his rental house in Augusta to make a big fuss over him.

"They have the golf channel on all the time and they want to talk about what everybody is saying," Kuchar said. "And I don't watch much of anything or read much of anything. 

"I think it's cool that I could get No. 1 in the world. But it doesn't help me play better golf. That kind of stuff gets in the way more than anything."

Lance Bennett has been Kuchar's caddie for the past eight years through some lean times between his first tour win in 2002 and his second in 2009.

"Each year Matt gets a little better," Bennett said. For Kuchar, it's all about getting better.

O'Connell says that Kuchar isn't afraid to try anything that will help him, even if it doesn't feel right. Kuchar, according to O'Connell, has the ability to make mid-round changes when things are going very poorly.

"When Matt senses that he's losing control with his full swing during a round," O'Connell said, "he can change up his swing thought to limit the damage to get back on track enough to where he can get back to the range to filter through some different swing thoughts."

It took Kuchar several years to find his way in the pro game after a stellar amateur and college career that included low amateur finishes in both the Masters and the U.S. Open. Yet he didn't fully blossom into an elite player until his early 30s.

"It took me awhile to get comfortable with my game," Kuchar said. "I was maybe overly enamored with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. I remember being on the range with them and I would be like, wow.

"And over time I think I got comfortable enough with my game and figuring out how to play the best I can play and not try to keep up with those guys."

Like Kuchar, Jason Dufner knows what it's like to find success later after struggling through his 20s.

"I feel like guys like me and Kuchar aren't as maybe talented as Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson," said the 2013 PGA Championship winner. "I think you can get away with more when you're talented. If you're less talented, you have to figure out what's going to work for you. It can take a period of growth and understanding to figure out what you need to do to get better."

Kuchar has the game and experience to join Dufner as a major champion with a victory at Pinehurst. But more importantly he understands that he doesn't have to hit the ball perfect every time to accomplish this goal.

"Matt isn't trying to pick any course apart," O'Connell said. "He would love to do that but he understands that golf is about predictability and that if you can accurately predict the outcome before it happens it becomes a very manageable game."

At Pinehurst No. 2, this mindset will be Kuchar's main ingredient in claiming the U.S. Open trophy, regardless of the course conditions, the weather or how well he hits the ball.