Sunday, February 24, 2013
Kuchar understands his game to win
By Farrell Evans
MARANA, Ariz. -- Matt Kuchar took off his white ski cap only twice on Sunday during the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
The first time came after he beat Jason Day 4 and 3 in the morning semifinals. And then he did it again after narrowly edging Hunter Mahan 2 and 1 for the victory.
On a day of 30 mph wind gusts at Dove Mountain, Kuchar survived the tough scoring conditions to win one of the biggest tournaments of his life.
"I was hiding in my ski cap and ski mitts, covering up any nervousness," Kuchar said. "I did a great job today of being excited to hit the next shot. I knew that if I was to have a lapse of any sort mentally, physically, just to have a lapse, that momentum could swing pretty quickly.
"So I enjoyed being out there, I had a great time, but I was also very focused on what I was doing."
It's these twin pursuits of fun and focus that have powered this former Georgia Tech star to the top of the sport.
In May, the 34-year-old former U.S. Amateur champion took the prestigious Players Championship title, but this win might best exemplify his amazing consistency over the past four years, where he has a PGA Tour-leading 32 top-10 finishes.
Kuchar isn't the longest driver or the best putter or the purest ball-striker on tour. He does it by playing within himself.
From his first match on Wednesday, a 3 and 2 win over Hiroyuki Fujita, the native of Winter Park, Fla., stuck to his steady game of not trying to give up holes.
But he would need everything in his arsenal to beat Mahan, the defending champion. Mahan had gone 169 holes in this event without trailing before Kuchar took his first lead of the match on the fourth hole.
The finals match ended on No. 17 when Mahan's tee shot rested in a depression in the fairway bunker that left him with no chance of reaching the green.
"I felt bummed to see the match end on such a bad break," said Kuchar, who didn't make it to the 18th hole in any of his six matches and who now has 15-3 record in this event.
Yet this win couldn't have happened for Kuchar without the help of his swing coach, Chris O'Connell, who he started working with in 2006 when Kuchar was playing on the Web.com Tour after losing his PGA Tour card.
The Dallas-based O'Connell helped the 6-foot-4 Kuchar build a durable but unusual one-plane motion. With the new swing, by 2010 Kuchar became a top-10 machine and one of the most consistent players in the world.
"I was good in my younger days but streaky," Kuchar said. "I could be really good for a while and then struggle. And now I feel like I'm a golfer that can hit quality shots week in and week out, day in and day out."
Last week during the Northern Trust Open in L.A., Kuchar spent some time with O'Connell. They went back to their very first lesson.
"[Chris] is always trying to get me to get the handle as low and as tight as I can to my body," Kuchar said. "We work almost solely on [my] through swing. We never touch my backswing."
The Match Play is just one tournament, but Kuchar has already evolved into a player that should win majors. At 34, he is around the same age that Phil Mickelson won his first major, the 2004 Masters.
Last year at Augusta, Kuchar had a tie for third as well as a tie for ninth in July at the Open Championship. The Players Championship and Match Play Championship victories, plus all the top-10s, have groomed him for the next stage in his career.
At Dove Mountain, Kuchar didn't getting wrapped up in his opponent, a virtue that will prove important in major championships.
"[In] match play, my game plan is to start off as much like stroke play as I can, play the golf course, forget about what the opponent is doing unless the opponent does something, either hits one to gimme length or hits one where he cannot make a par from a situation," Kuchar said.
On Sunday, Kuchar was as confident as any player left in the field, but you wouldn't have known it by his gentle smile and easy demeanor.
In the morning semis, Mahan had faced the intense Ian Poutler, who wore the look of a predator in his eyes. But with Kuchar, Mahan got a relaxed but sure veteran.
"[Kuchar's] more of like a fuzzier Peter Jacobson kind of guy who likes to talk," Mahan said. "He's super competitive. I mean, there's no doubt about it. He plays golf to win, and he works hard at it. I think he really enjoys playing."
It's all about fun and focus for the man the players call "Kuch."
On Saturday, the man who travels every week with his wife and two children said if he won on Sunday he planned to have his favorite mixed vodka drink.
After six matches, rain, sleet, snow, wind and cold, he deserves it.