If Matt Kuchar takes the next step in his golf progression this week and contends at the British Open, it will be partially because of a philosophy he was taught at Georgia Tech, back in the days before his hairline began to recede and his wallet got thick.
“Coach [Bruce Heppler] preached to go play golf, keep your head down and add up the scores at the end of the day,” Kuchar said. “I still find myself doing that today.”
The philosophy worked for Kuchar a dozen years ago and helped him win his first collegiate tournament. Now the stakes are higher -- he’s competing for the oldest golf championship in the world – but the recipe remains the same. For Kuchar it’s still one shot at a time.
Kuchar has been in the spotlight since he burst onto national scene in 1998. That was his sophomore year at Tech, when he captured the imagination of fans around the world by his performances at the Masters (tied for 21st) and U.S. Open (tied for 14th) and then stunned nearly everyone by deciding to remain in school and complete his final two years of eligibility. But that decision matches Kuchar’s pattern of taking things as they come and not getting ahead of himself.
That’s why Kuchar isn’t interested in looking ahead to what might happen this week on the Road Hole or calculating his chances of earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team. He’s notorious for not setting goals and isn’t about to change, regardless of the setting.
“The way I’ve always looked at golf is that good play takes care of itself,” he said. “I’m not going to try to play a different schedule or play any different to earn extra points for the Ryder Cup. I’m not even sure how you get them. I just hope to play some good golf.”
Kuchar, who has homes in Georgia and Florida, struggled after he finished at Tech. Despite winning the Sony Open in 2002, he lost his PGA Tour card and spent 2006 on the Nationwide Tour. That’s about the time he began to work with instructor Chris O’Connell, who teaches the one-plane swing. Kuchar’s swing has become more consistent and better able to hold up under tournament pressure.
“My game has definitely elevated since we started working together,” he said.
The consistent swing has helped produce a career year. In 16 tournaments, Kuchar has finished among the top 10 on six occasions and has 11 finishes in the top 25. That’s the sweet spot on the Tour, where the big money is earned, and it has certainly flowed into Kuchar’s bank account. He’s earned $2.3 million and ranks 12th on the FedEx Cup points list. If the season ended today, Kuchar would make the Ryder Cup team and earn a spot in the Tour Championship at the East Lake for the first time.
This week Kuchar will be competing in the Open for the sixth time, the fifth time as a professional. His performances abroad have been unsuccessful; he’s never made the cut. He’s whiffed at Carnoustie (twice), Muirfield, Royal Birkdale and Turnbury. Now he gets a whack at St. Andrews, where Ladbrokes places his odds of winning at 100-to-1, the same as defending champion Stewart Cink, two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and Adam Scott.
He comes into the St. Andrews with plenty of confidence. He’s played well at some tough tracks this year: a tie for third at Doral and a tie for eighth at Muirfield Village. But his best moments may have been at the Masters, where he endured the tempest of being paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds and still managed to tie for 24th, and at the U.S. Open, where he tied for sixth.
His performance at Pebble Beach was particularly noteworthy. He shot a 68 on the final day and wound up with his best finish in a major championship.
This week Tiger Woods is playing two groups ahead and sentimental favorite Tom Watson is one group in front, so Kuchar won’t have to worry about a storm of media attention or a crush of spectators. Kuchar’s first-round partners are Henrik Stenson and Jin Jeong, a pairing that isn’t likely to see significant time on network television. But that’s OK with Kuchar, who will be content to keep plugging around, continue to improve and not worry about much else.
“If I’m playing with the best players in the world and I’m getting better, the wins are going to come,” he said.
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