Forty may not be the new 20, but it has created sort of a PGA Tour version of a mid-life crisis for Matt Kuchar, who is not only playing as good as the “young gun” 20-somethings but he’s beating them too.
Kuchar hit the big 4-0 over the summer, and spent the early part of this milestone year in a career slump. 2018 was his worst season in some time, as the former top-10 machine mustered just four in 24 starts, while barely threatening a tournament lead at any point.
As of November, his winless streak had spanned four-plus years.
However, a new season and a new decade has suddenly ushered in some of the best golf of Kuchar’s career. He won the Mayakoba Golf Classic in November, and just two starts later, he has landed in the winner’s circle again, as a back-nine flurry of birdies left him four strokes clear of Andrew Putnam on Sunday at the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, the second PGA Tour event of the 2019 calendar year.
With the win, the famously majorless Kuchar has engendered optimism that the biggest victory of his career has yet to come.
Nobody else seriously challenged the lead at Waialae, with the quartet of Marc Leishman, Hudson Swafford, Chez Reavie, and Corey Conners being next closest to Kuchar, all five strokes back at 17-under for the week.
FINAL TOP 10
1. Matt Kuchar -22
2. Andrew Putnam -18
3. Marc Leishman -17
3. Hudson Swafford -17
3. Chez Reavie -17
3. Corey Conners -17
7. Davis Love III -16
8. Brian Stuard -15
8. Charles Howell III -15
10. Sebastian Muno -14
10. Sung Kang -14
10. Bryson DeChambeau -14
13. Patrick Reed -13
13. Patton Kizzire -13
16. Justin Thomas -12
16. Brandt Snedeker -12
20. Stewart Cink -11
22. Emiliano Grillo -10
22. Kyle Stanley -10
29. Keegan Bradley -9
29. Abraham Ancer -9
33. Ian Poulter -8
33. Y.E. Yang -8
51. Hideki Matsuyama -6
51. Jimmy Walker -6
57. Adam Hadwin -5
69. Kevin Kisner -1
HOW MATT KUCHAR WON THE SONY OPEN
Despite scorching recent form, the victory did not come easy for Kuchar at the stronger-than-usual Hawaii event. After going 63-63-66 over the first three rounds at Waialae, Kuchar held a two-stroke advantage over Putnam going into Sunday, but relinquished that lead rapidly with three bogeys over his first five holes.
However, his time in second-place would be short-lived. Kuchar was able to steady himself after the bogey-binge, playing hole Nos. 6-9 at 1 under, and went into the turn still one back of Putnam, but with more confidence.
Kuchar then exploded on the final nine holes, first with a birdie on No. 10. He then regained the solo lead with a birdie on the 12th, and as Putnam stagnated down the stretch, Kuchar added additional birdies on Nos. 15, 16, and 18 to put the exclamation point on a four-stroke victory – a win on paper that does not look quite as close as it was.
For the week, Kuchar notched just four bogeys, with three of those coming in a four-hole span on the front nine. His 24 birdies co-led the field for the four days, while his 83.3% of greens hit in regulation was second to no one. Also helping his cause, Kuchar ranked third in the field in strokes gained: putting and fourth in driving accuracy.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR KUCHAR
Kuchar now has twice as many wins (2) in his three most recent starts than he had over his previous five years (1). This recent stretch of stellar play for Kuchar has to be much welcomed, as he spent nearly all of 2018 mired in irrelevancy.
Just two weeks into the 2019 calendar year, and Kuchar already sits at No. 2 in the FedExCup Standings, basically guaranteeing a September trip to East Lake and the Tour Championship – one year after finishing an extremely disappointing 76th, and failing to even make the third playoff event, let alone the finale.
With Kuchar, the talk is going to continue to be about majors, where he is 0-for-51 for his career, but at least he will go into this year’s Masters with multiple victories over his previous six months.
While the final 18 holes of the Sony Open was basically a two-man show, at least as far as the lead went, there was a plethora of low scores on the final day. Among those who tied for the field-low of 64 on Sunday, perhaps the best performance came from Marc Leishman, who was bogey-free with six birdies to finish in a tie for third.
The strong performance continued a hot recent stretch of play for the Aussie, who has three finishes inside the top 4, including a victory, in four 2019 season starts. Leishman took fourth at last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui.
27-year-old Canadian Corey Conners had just one top-10 in 28 events in the 2018 season, but with a seven-birdie final round 64, his second consecutive round with that score, Conners now has two top-three finishes in just six 2019 events. His 24 birdies for the week tied Kuchar for the field lead, and his iron play was especially strong, as he ranked third in the field in both strokes gained: approach-the-green and greens in regulation.
It was not quite as good as what Leishman and Conners did on Sunday, but defending champion Patton Kizzire shone on Sunday at Waialae for the second consecutive year. Kizzire went bogey-free over his final 18 holes to post a 5-under 65 and finish T13. The 32-year-old Auburn product imploded into a huge slump after winning this event last year, but his strong showing at the Sony is his third consecutive top-15 finish on the new season, giving Kizzire hope that he has righted the ship.
Sunday’s most significant drop down the leaderboard, by far, was that of long-hitting 27-year-old Keith Mitchell. Looking for his first career victory, Mitchell began the final round in a tie for third, but he stumbled out of the gates, carding four bogeys to no birdies on the front nine.
He played the back-nine in a bogey-free 2-under, but he had long been out of the tournament mix by then, and a 2-over 72 meant a T16 finish, the worst final round of anyone who finished in the top 30.
Finishing one stroke worse than Mitchell on Sunday was Dominic Bozzelli, who may have had the most up-and-down performance of anyone in the field for the week.
After consecutive rounds of 6-under 64 on Friday and Saturday, Bozzelli could not get much of anything going on Sunday. With five bogeys and a double, he finished with a 3-over 73, dropping him from T5 to T33 on the final leaderboard.
Matching Bozzelli’s disappointing 73 was 26-year-old 5-time PGA Tour winner Hideki Matsuyama. Currently fighting horrendous recent form worldwide, Matsuyama again sputtered on Sunday. Four front-nine bogeys combined with zero back-nine birdies left the Japan native three strokes over par for the final round, dropping him to T51 for the week.
A WEEKEND FOR LOVE (III)
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the week came from 54-year-old Davis Love III. The World Golf Hall of Famer and 21-time PGA Tour winner had finally started looking his age over the past two seasons.
In 2018, he failed to card a single top-25 in 12 PGA Tour events, and through three tournaments in the new season, his best finish was a T57.
However, Love was able to turn back the clock at Waialae this week, and despite not ranking in the top 30 in the field in either driving accuracy or greens in regulation, he rode a 64-65 weekend to a seventh place finish, his best result in more than three years.
“I’m tickled, thrilled to have won two events this early in the year. To have won two out of three starts on the PGA TOUR is mind boggling to me. Yeah, to set up the year, absolutely sets up the year to be in great position for the FedExCup. There is a lot of year left and a lot of great things that are out there to be done.”
– Matt Kuchar