Call 2018 the “Year of the Comeback”.
Over the past 10 months, a shocking amount of high-end players saw lengthy personal winless droughts come to a close, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, and Paul Casey.
Now Matt Kuchar can be added to that list.
The affable 40-year-old, coming off his worst season in ten years, was nearly untouchable all week in Mexico, going wire-to-wire at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, transmuting a four-stroke 54-hole lead to a one-stroke triumph following a Sunday into a Sunday 2-under 69.
The victory was the eighth of his 428-start career, and first since winning the 2014 RBC Heritage, more than four years ago.
It was far from easy, however, and down the stretch, Kuchar finally started looking like a player who’d been shut out of the winner’s circle in his previous 137 starts. Back-to-back bogeys, just his third and fourth of the entire week, on Nos. 14 and 15 brought a highly-motivated Danny Lee to within just one stroke of the lead.
Kuchar, though, was able to finagle a par-par-par finish – aided by a fortunate bounce after a wayward drive off the 72nd tee box, to maintain his advantage.
The win felt like a long time coming for the man who has finished in the top 10 in four of the last eight majors.
After a disappointing 2018 campaign, Kuchar had plummeted to a world ranking of 40 – his worst ranking since the 2008-09 season, but his stellar effort at El Camaleon Golf Club will move him back inside the top 30, and closer to the more familiar position inside the top 20.
FINAL TOP-10 SCORERS
Pos-Player-Final Score (Final Rd)
1. Matt Kuchar -22 (-2)
2. Danny Lee -21 (-6)
3. JJ Spaun -19 (-5)
3. Richy Werenski -19 (-4)
5. Brice Garnett -18 (-5)
6. Scott Piercy -17 (-9)
6. Harold Varner III -17 (-6)
6. Pat Perez -17 (-4)
6. Jim Furyk -17 (-4)
10. Adam Hadwin -16 (-3)
10. Anirban Lahiri -16 (-3)
10. Cameron Champ -16 (-2)
10. Aaron Wise -16 (-2)
10. Whee Kim -16 (E)
Pos-Player-Final Score (Final Rd)
15. Emiliano Grillo -15 (-2)
16. Rickie Fowler -14 (-4)
16. Tony Finau -14 (-2)
21. Billy Horschel -13 (-6)
21. Abraham Ancer -13 (E)
26. Si Woo Kim -12 (-5)
41. Gary Woodland -9 (-6)
55. Patton Kizzire -6 (+4)
60. Bill Haas -5 (-1)
60. Joaquin Niemann -5 (-2)
65. Ernie Els -2 (+1)
How Matt Kuchar Won the Mayakoba Golf Classic
Historically a top-10 machine, Kuchar was barely relevant during the 2017-18 season, notching just four finishes inside the top 10, and only one of those coming since April Fools Day. He limped into the FedExCup Playoffs, and did not even qualify for the final two rounds.
He made his 2018-19 season debut at last week’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open, finishing a disappointing T57. In that outing, he was actually tremendous tee-to-green, but had an absolute nightmare week with his putter.
Whatever plagued Kuchar on the Vegas greens last week didn’t travel with him to Mexico. Kuchar took the first round at El Camaleon with a 64, a score he then matched on Friday. A Saturday 65 provided him with a four-stroke advantage going into Sunday’s finale where he was paired with Whee Kim and Richy Werenski, two far less accomplished players.
Despite holding down the 54-hole lead for the first time in nearly three years, Kuchar kept composed for most of Sunday. Through 13 holes he was a bogey-free 4-under, but after back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15, Lee – his closest competitor, was able to get within one with a birdie on the 16th.
Looking vulnerable for the first time all week, Kuchar composed himself with pars on 16 and 17. Standing on the 18th tee box still holding a one-stroke lead, Kuchar sent his tee shot careening to the right and into the woods, but received an auspicious bounce off a tree that put him back in good position. Two solid shots later, Kuchar had a three-foot gimmie for par, and the victory.
For the week, Kuchar co-led field in birdies while simultaneously carding the fewest bogeys. He hit 80.3% of his fairways, good for third-best in the field, and tied for ninth in greens in regulation. It was his most complete performance in some time.
What the Win Means For Matt Kuchar
Kuchar may not have taken down the strongest field in professional golf, but it did rate as a solid 40 by the Official World Golf Rankings, and included top-20 ranked stars such as Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Tony Finau.
Following a difficult 2017-18 season, Kuchar entered the new season facing many questions about the state of his game. Most of his problems were attributed to poor accuracy off the tees, where he dropped from 66th to 151st on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee
Now reinvigorated, Kuchar has something to be optimistic about going into 2019. He will be in Hawaii in early January for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, an event he has not qualified for since the 2015 edition. Perhaps not quite out of his prime yet, Kuchar still faces tremendous pressure to notch major championship No. 1, but he showed in Mexico that he still has game.
It can be questioned whether Kuchar has come anywhere close to reaching his potential after being an amateur superstar at Georgia Tech, but what cannot be debated is that he’s made a LOT of money. The victory in Mexico brings his career earnings north of $45 million, making him just the 10th player in Tour history to reach that lofty mark.
Considered a horse for the course, Scott Piercy added another great Mayakoba finish to his resume. A final-round 9-under 62 – where he had six-straight birdies at one point, was the low-round in the Sunday field, elevating him 28 spots up the final leaderboard to T6.
Similar to Kuchar in being a 40-something former great coming off an awful season, Jason Dufner notched 10 Sunday birdies, including seven in a row on Nos. 8-14, to shoot a 7-under 64 and move 29 positions up the final leaderboard. The T21 was easily Dufner’s best result of the new season, with his past four starts resulting in two missed cuts, a T43, and a T55, with the latter two coming in limited-field no-cut events.
Harold Varner III continued his recent stretch of hot play with a 6-under 65 and finish T6. In four events in the new season, Varner III has three finishes inside the top 15, making himself a player to watch closely heading into the new calendar year.
Whee Kim was Kuchar’s closest competitor coming into the final round, but in his quest for his first career victory, the 26-year-old from South Korea was unable to get much of anything going, carding two birdies and two bogeys in an even-par 71 that dropped him from second place to T10.
Matching Kim’s disappointing even-par Sunday was Abraham Ancer, a Mexican national who was hoping to become the first Mexican winner of the event. A T4 at last week’s Shriners moved Ancer into the world’s top 100 for the first time (No. 98), and over three rounds at El Camaleon, he did not seem overwhelmed with the local pressure, posting rounds of 65-68-67.
However, on a low-scoring Sunday, Ancer parred the entire front nine and managed just a single birdie and a bogey on the back nine. He finished 13-under for the week, but his underwhelming Sunday dropped him from inside the top 10 (T8) to outside the top 20 (T21).
Defending champion Patton Kizzire was incredible in his final two rounds a year ago, but Sunday this year was a completely different story. Kizzire, who has been a disaster since notching his second victory of last season by mid-January, shot 65-66 in the opening rounds, and it was looking like familiar settings might reignite his game. However, a 1-over 72 on Saturday knocked him down to T22, and he was even worse on Sunday, shooting a 4-over 75 that dropped him to T55 – par for the course with his recent results.
Furyk Turns Back the Clock
One of the most compelling developments in Playa del Carmen this week was the shockingly stellar performance of 48-year-old Jim Furyk, who has been regarded as done for years.
Playing a course that was not as penal to his lack of distance, Furyk was tremendous tee-to-green at El Camaleon, posting a T6 finish, his second top-10 in his last three starts.
The American captain of the recent Ryder Cup, Furyk was first in the Mayakoba field in driving accuracy and second in greens in regulation. Furyk is making the argument that he is not simply running out the clock while waiting for Champions Tour eligibility.
“Golf is a funny game. It’s hard to predict when it’s going to come around. Normally, I gradually grow bit-by-bit and kind of have a couple top-10s and contend, but to have a 60th place finish and then a win, it’s pretty amazing.”
– Matt Kuchar