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Published: Monday, 6/3/2013

COMMENTARY

Kuchar more than a nice guy

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Matt Kuchar reacts after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th green to cap off his Memorial title. He should be one of the favorites at the upcoming U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. Matt Kuchar reacts after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th green to cap off his Memorial title. He should be one of the favorites at the upcoming U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania.
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DUBLIN, Ohio — Matt Kuchar says he is not superstitious. So his beard, such as it is, is going to come off.

“I’m not sure it’s fully a beard yet,” he said with that ever-present smile.

But there’s enough growth that he can’t take a razor blade to it without thinning it first with clippers.

So that’s what he planned to do immediately upon arriving home from Muirfield Village, where he won the 2013 Memorial on Sunday.

Maybe he should hold off. It has nothing to do with superstition and everything to do with presence.

“No, I can promise you, I’ll be shaving the minute I get home,” Kuchar said. “It’s itchy and scratchy. It doesn’t feel great. I’m not sure it even looks that great.”

Maybe it’s borderline menacing.

Kuchar has debunked the premise that he’s too nice a guy to stomp on a field. He won the Players Championship a year ago and captured this spring’s Accenture Match Play title without a single match reaching the 18th hole.

To that, he has added Jack Nicklaus’ prestigious Memorial title.

So Kuchar can be a tough guy, or at least a tough guy to beat.

And with the U.S. Open right around the corner, where short, quirky Merion could play to his strengths, he’ll try to hold that edge, with or without the beard. A major championship could be the next thing he adds to his resume.

The 1997 U.S. Amateur champion, Kuchar came to the pro ranks as a can’t-miss talent who then did little but miss. He was barely a presence on the PGA Tour in the mid-2000s and even lost his playing privileges and competed on the Nationwide Tour for a spell.

“I love that golf is strictly performance-based, and I hadn’t performed well enough,” Kuchar said. “I didn’t let it bother me. I knew this is where I belonged. I just had to do my job down there and get back here.”

It took a while, but he is finally living up to all that potential. He is more than just a big, bright smile, although he flashed it often down the stretch at Muirfield Village.

“This tournament is truly special to me,” Kuchar said. “In my early years, to get the invitation was so exciting, such a thrill, such an honor.”

Not among the biggest hitters on tour, Kuchar originally didn’t think he could win here.

“It was a place I thought was a huge advantage for the long hitters and that it may not play into my strong suits,” he said. “But the more I’ve played the course, the more I learn it, the more comfortable I feel.”

Indeed, he had posted top-10 finishes in his last four Memorial starts.

This time, he grabbed the top finish.

By the time the leaders made the turn Sunday, the tournament had tightened into a two-man chase between Kuchar and Kyle Stanley, who had three birdies on the front nine to pull within one stroke.

But the par-5 11th hole changed all that. Stanley landed in a fairway bunker, against the lip, and could do little more than escape. Still 230-plus yards out, he leaned on it and yanked his ball well left. His double bogey coupled with Kuchar’s 14-foot birdie putt produced a three-stroke difference on the leaderboard.

It pretty much held up until the end, and Kuchar finished with a flourish, nailing a 21-foot birdie putt, before receiving the traditional greenside handshake from Nicklaus at the 72nd hole.

With No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods salvaging an even-par final round to finish at 8-over and 20 strokes behind, with No. 2 Rory McIlroy finishing at plus-6, and with Masters champion Adam Scott making no Sunday charge, Kuchar saved the tournament from a leaderboard that lacked star power.

He beat Kevin Chappell, who posted a career-best finish by playing the back nine in 4-under, by two shots. Stanley faded to five back.

Fans like to chant “Kooch,” and Kuchar is every bit as nice and classy as he looks, but maybe we should call him golf’s smiling assassin. The Memorial win represented a 35th top-10 finish since the start of the 2010 season.

“He doesn’t make many mistakes,” said Chappell, who tried his best to turn the heat up on Kuchar with a birdie-birdie finish. “He’s not going to give you much.”

Of course not. He’s a tough guy.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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