News & Opinion

Kuchar, Westwood revel in art of winning

This is that sleepy, back-room portion of the PGA Tour schedule when fans often see who won tournaments on Sunday across the bottom scroll of an NFL game. But make no mistake: the pros are out there, working hard, traveling around the globe year-round to try to unlock the secret and make something happen.

Matt Kuchar won in Mexico (Mayakoba Golf Classic) on Sunday, hours after Englishman Lee Westwood had won across the globe in South Africa (Nedbank Challenge). Both men are in their 40s (Kuchar is 40, Westwood 45) and, aside from winning a major championship, have accomplished about all that a golfer can accomplish in this game.

It’s wildly coincidental that Kuchar and Westwood last had won on the same day in April roughly 4½ years ago. For two men who’d always won golf tournaments at a fairly decent pace – Kuchar now has won eight times on the PGA Tour, as well as elsewhere around the globe; Westwood captured his 24th European Tour title – 4½ years might as well be a golfer’s eternity.

But after lengthy winless skeins, both players exorcised all those inherent doubts and demons on Sunday, providing an emphatic answer: Yes, I have what it takes to win again! Sure, the quality of their games had been there in places, but to perform down the stretch, to make the solid swings, to convert the big putts … all leads to what truly is an underrated art: winning. Winning golf tournaments is one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports.

Each golf tournament is pretty much a lottery, often with 132 to 156 of the top players from a burgeoning global pool there to deny you. Top players emerge from everywhere these days. Someone can play exceptional golf and beat 154 other players on any given week (much like Kuchar had done at the 2017 British Open) and, as trophies go, still come up empty; 154-1 any given week just doesn't get it done.

Tiger Woods spoiled us, winning at an incredible pace for a 15-year stretch. Woods owns 80 titles in 343 career starts on the PGA Tour, meaning he has won more than 23.3 percent of the time. He’s an anomaly, multiplied by four. In baseball, if a player gets a hit in three out of every 10 plate appearances, he's likely headed for the Hall of Fame. In golf, 15 victories in a career, perhaps mixing in a major title, probably is enough to get him there.

On Sunday, winning felt so good, so special, to Kuchar and to Westwood, because, well, it should. Kuchar doesn’t have to wonder about the future of golf and where the game is headed; he played alongside it over the weekend in Mexico, teeing it up across from rookie phenom Cameron Champ. Champ can cover four football fields when he really “catches” one, and is averaging 335.2 yards off the tee as a rookie. Last season, Kuchar ranked 169th in driving distance, averaging 287.8. A shopping center could be built between drives struck by these two.

Ah, but that’s why we love golf, because our champions come in all shapes and flavors, and they win in all sorts of styles, be it sheer power (Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson) or game plan and finesse (Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk). Until Sunday, Kuchar had endured a poor year by his standards in 2018, making an early exit in the FedEx Cup playoffs and missing out on what would have been his ninth consecutive U.S. cup team. (Instead, he served as a vice captain to Furyk in the Ryder Cup in France.) But dating to the start of the 2016-17 season, and heading into the final round Sunday, only Tony Finau (20) had posted more top 10s than Kuchar (13) without winning.

While an NCAA All-American and a U.S. Amateur champion at Georgia Tech, Kuchar once pondered staying amateur and working in the finance world, taking his lead from another Tech alumnus who had done OK along that path, Bobby Jones. Ultimately, the competitor inside him convinced Kuchar to see just how good he could be as a golfer, so that meant turning pro and joining the chase. He won only once in his first 180 PGA Tour starts, and while demoted to the minor-league Tour, he met an instructor, Chris O’Connell, who would turn Kuchar into the most consistent ball-striking machine since Iron Byron. Know this: Kuchar and his family will not be dining on franks and beans any time soon. Sunday’s triumph in Mexico lifted him to 10th in all-time PGA Tour earnings ($45,019,237). (Had he stayed amateur, Kuchar would have had to be quite a business shark to match that money.)

But at some point, a man and his family can have only so many homes, so many boats and so many sports cars. There is a reason most are driven to compete, and it’s that heated competition late on a Sunday afternoon, that rush that comes with trying to run down a trophy. It tests a player, and removes one from his comfort zone. This is where Woods spoiled us as fans and viewers. In winning 80 PGA Tour events, he proved to be his most comfortable late Sunday afternoon, a time when his fellow competitors were wrestling with nerves and trying to handle the uncharted emotions of contending.

Earlier this year, still stuck on those seven victories, Kuchar talked about the things he has accomplished in this game, but still, naturally, conceded that he yearned for a larger victory total.

“As a player, as a competitor, you always want more,” Kuchar said. “Winning is our true result, our true baseline that we look to and judge ourselves by. It’s a tough deal when you’re going up against the best players in the world to get in that winner’s circle.”

Sunday, Kuchar made two unforced errors with three-putt bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15, left a 12-footer for birdie short in the jaws on the next hole, but then steadied himself with two solid pars, enough to hold off Danny Lee by a shot. Kuchar’s wife, Sybi, and their sons, Cameron and Carson, were there on the 18th green to greet Kuchar, which made the moment extra special. The boys, who’ve caddied for him at the Masters Par 3, now are old enough to grasp what Dad does for work. Westwood had let the tears flow when he won, but Kuchar managed to keep his in. This likely won’t be his last victory, and the confidence it gave him should fuel bigger things in 2018-19.

Later, when his champion’s obligations were complete, and before he would settle in for a long flight to Australia to keep chasing what a world-class competitor chases, Kuchar allowed himself a moment to savor what he’d done. It’s golf, after all, and winning doesn’t happen every day. Sometimes victories can be bookends with four long years between them. Every trophy is to be savored.

“Sweet,” is how Kuchar summed up his Mexico afternoon in a text. “I forgot how good winning felt.”

In this most difficult game, we all can, and should, raise a toast to that.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62