PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Given that the smile’s permanent and the wave to say thanks is as natural as breathing for him, it is understandable to presume that Matt Kuchar is always upbeat. Well, the smooth and seemingly effortless 68 that he authored in Friday’s second round of The Players Championship – a score that pushed him into a share of the lead at 8-under 136 – did nothing to dull the bliss that seems to envelope Kuchar.
Of course, had your view strayed from Kuchar’s robotic round (10 fairways, 13 greens, bogey-free over his final 13 holes), you wouldn’t have had to have searched for far more turbulent emotions. Playing competitors Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson were swirling storms around Kuchar’s serenity.
Down and seemingly headed out of the championship, Bradley sprinted to the finish line and will play this weekend.
In and seemingly comfortable in pursuit of a third-round tee time, Simpson stumbled badly and headed home to Charlotte, N.C.
Consider it further testimony that golf is a game that defies logic but offers endless twists and turns. For instance, he may have won a major championship nearly nine months ago, but what he did late in a warm twilight at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass really got Bradley pumped up – birdies on three of the final five holes.
“Oh, yeah, it’s a big deal,” he said. “Instead of missing three cuts in a row, then going to defend my title at the Byron Nelson and having a week off, now I’m in position to go out early tomorrow morning and tear it up.”
And the flip side to that joy? The anguish of watching Simpson – who was 1 under and a shot inside the cut line as he stood on the 16th tee – hit into water at both 16 and 17 to miss his first cut of the season.
(In fact, in a bizarre stat, guys who had the three longest streaks of consecutive cuts made – Steve Stricker, 49; Gary Woodland, 22; and Simpson, 18 – all missed the cut.)
No big deal, you say? There’s so much money available that these guys don’t sweat it out when they leave early. Well, don’t tell that to Bradley.
“Missing cuts is the worst thing, the worst feeling ever,” he said. “You go from being on such a high to contending to missing cuts to the feeling you don’t belong out here.”
Yet there was Bradley at 1 over through 13 holes, having spent much of his second round trying to find his game. “I got it up-and-down from everywhere,” he said. “I could have been 5 or 6 over.”
Instead, he ripped a 315-yard drive at 14, lofted a wedge from 145 yards to 12 feet, and made birdie to pull onto the cut line at level par. Emotionally charged by a 6-foot par save at 15, Bradley was deflated a bit at 16 when he three-putted from 55 feet and didn’t birdie the par 5.
Into the watery surrounds of the island-green 17th and testing 18th went Bradley and out he came with scintillating birdies – wedges setting up rolls of 12 and 15 feet, respectively.
“I’m so proud of how I hung in there,” said Bradley, who in the span of 45 minutes went from just trying to make the cut to looking at a standings that show him just six off the lead. “It’s a big deal, a really big deal.”
At the other end of the spectrum was Simpson, who was the yang to Bradley’s yin. He missed a 10-foot birdie try at No. 14 that would have pushed him to 2 under, but even then, Simpson figured to be in position to birdie the 16th, a hole that would yield 50 of them (plus five eagles) on this second round.
Only from 237 yards, Simpson pulled his second shot well left and up onto mounds of thick rough. Afforded a miserable lie on a shot into a green running away from him, Simpson brought it out too hot and it raced through the green and into the water on the other side. Bogey, back to level par, and to the 17th tee he went with piles of pressure.
But he did have the perfect club, a wedge for the 148-yard shot.
“The situation just amps you up a little bit,” Simpson said. “I was a little jacked and just hit it too hard.”
Trying to carry it 140 yards, Simpson was long, perhaps 152 yards. It bounced once on the green and settled into the water. All he could do was hang his head, for the resulting double-bogey meant he was not going to play on the weekend of a tournament in which he entered for the first time since last summer’s PGA Championship.
“I didn’t feel any more adrenaline that hole than normal par 3s,” Simpson said. Then he shrugged and talked of a golf course that baffles you and commands your attention.
“I hung in there really well until the end. But I think you have to play it a lot. A lot of times, I don’t know where I’m going. I learn a little bit every year.”
Oh, as for Kuchar? He smiled through it all – and for good reason. He was spared the roller-coaster emotions that ensnared Bradley and Simpson, two days of rock-solid play (11 birdies, just three bogeys) giving him reason to smile.
Like he needs one.