2006: Kuchar’s drought ends

Glen Allen, Va.

To say the last three years have been a bit of a struggle for Matt Kuchar would be an understatement.

After winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur and posting top finishes at the Masters

(T-21) and U.S. Open (14th) the next year, big things were expected of Kuchar, the former Georgia Tech standout who grew up in Lake Mary, Fla.

But 2002 would mark both the climax and the downfall of Kuchar’s fledgling career. Kuchar, who was college golf’s player of the year in 1998, experienced one of the highest highs for any professional Tour player – his first victory. But after winning the Honda Classic, Kuchar seemed to drop off the face of the golfing earth.

In 2003, none of the previous year’s success could be found. Kuchar fell out of the top 125 in the money list and earned his best finish of the year at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, where he tied for 20th. The next two years were lackluster as well.

And this year hadn’t been much sweeter for Kuchar, who has attempted to rebound on the Nationwide Tour. Kuchar has only won slightly more than $10,000 on the PGA Tour. On the Nationwide Tour, he entered the Henrico County Open ranked 86th in earnings with his previous best finish of T-14 at the Rheem Classic.

But Kuchar experienced some relief from his struggles and took one step toward rebuilding his career with his victory May 21 at the Henrico County Open.

It took a playoff to decide the winner. Kuchar outlasted Paul Claxton by tapping in for birdie on the third extra hole at The Dominion Club. Both players finished at 9-under 279.

In the playoff, both made birdie at the first and pars at the second. On the third, Kuchar hit his second shot on the par-5 18th to 12 feet, while Claxton’s second shot landed in the fringe.

Claxton ran his putt off the green into the back fringe. Kuchar, 27, clinched the victory with a two-putt birdie.

“It was great to be back in this position. It’s been a while, and it feels sweet again,” Kuchar told The Sports Network. “It’s bittersweet to beat a friend, but a win’s a win.”

Kuchar, who earned $81,000, now takes his victory and confidence into this week’s PGA Tour FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Burned late: Second-year pro Jeff Burns usually stands out on the golf course, but through the first two rounds at Dominion, it was for entirely different reasons.

Burns, a 6-foot-5 San Antonio native, had opening rounds of 67- 64 for a 13-under-par total and a four-shot lead heading into Saturday.

“It’s been a phenomenal two days,” Burns said after his second round. “The last couple of tournaments I’ve been battling to make it to the weekend and not even thinking about the cut. I’ve been playing solid the last two months and missed a handful of cuts here and there. I knew, over time, I was going to start playing well.”

The two rounds, however, would be the highlight of Burns’ weekend. His lead slipped to a single shot after recording a 74 Saturday and then disappeared after a 6-over 78 on Sunday.

Burns, who earned his Nationwide Tour card at Q-School, still tied for fourth, bettering his previous best finishes of T-36 at the ING New Zealand PGA Championship Feb. 26 and the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship April 2.

Short shots: Claxton’s second-place finish was his best of 2006, bettering his T-11 finish at the Movistar Panama Championship Jan. 29. . . . Defending champion Chad Collins, ranked 10th on this year’s money list, finished T-38. . . . Current tour money leader Tripp Isenhour, chasing the same three-win promotion that sent Jason Gore straight to the PGA Tour last season, pulled out of the Rheem Classic last week because of neck problems. He missed the cut at Henrico County Open. . . . Peter Tomasulo, who helped guide California to the NCAA Championship in 2004, finished T-10 after holding a 2-stroke lead after the first round . . . . The LaSalle Bank Open added Kevin Hall, Ricky Barnes and Casey Wittenberg through sponsor exemptions.

– Staff and wire reports

On the tee

Next up: Rex Hospital Open, June 1-4, TPC at Wakefield Plantation, Raleigh, N.C. Defending champion: Eric Axley.

The buzz: Last year, Monday qualifier Axley used his victory here as a springboard to the PGA Tour.

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