PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Five things you need to know from Matt Kuchar’s victory Sunday at the Players Championship:
1. THE PLAYERS’ CHAMP: Can’t win The Big One? At age 33, Matt Kuchar finally has a signature victory.
With the Players Stadium Course rocking with late birdies, Kuchar delivered the biggest one of all — a 15-footer on the par-5 16th that gave him a three-shot cushion as he played the watery closing stretch.
“You think of this as one of the strongest fields in golf,” said Kuchar, who finished at 13-under 275. “To come out as the champion is just an amazing feeling.”
After three-putting from 44 feet for bogey on 17, Kuchar was his usual aw-shucks self on the closing hole, talking Celtics as he walked off the tee, munching on a Ziplock bag-full of almonds as he waited in the fairway. On 18, he blistered a fairway wood off the tee, then hit a long iron to the front of the green, 60 feet away. He needed only two putts to finish two shots clear of Martin Laird, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Ben Curtis.
For his Players victory (the fourth of his career), Kuchar earned $1.71 million, the biggest windfall in golf.
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2. CLOSE CALL: Martin Laird, who began the final round six shots off the lead, nearly authored the largest final-round comeback in tournament history. He tied for the lead with a birdie on the 12th hole, but dropped two more shots coming home, including one on the 18th, where he couldn’t get up-and-down from left of the green.
Nonetheless, after his closing 67 Laird said, “that was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played under the circumstances and conditions.”
Laird hadn’t finished in the top 10 in a full-field, stroke-play event since last May, though he mixed in good finishes at the World Cup (T-4), Chevron (T-6), Kapalua (2) and WGC-Match Play (quarterfinals) since then.
“I’ve been looking for confidence the past couple of months,” Laird said. “I found it this week, for some reason.”
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3. WAGGLE WHIPPED: Kevin Na was the latest 54-hole leader to falter in the final round of The Players. Staked to a one-shot lead at the start of the day, Na made six bogeys and a double en route to a final-round 76. He tumbled all the way to T-7.
That, of course, is nothing new at this tournament. Not since Stephen Ames, in 2006, has the 54-hole leader gone on to win The Players.
Na, in fact, became the sixth consecutive third-round leader to shoot 74 or worse — from 2007-2011, respectively, Sean O’Hair shot 76, Paul Goydos 74, Alex Cejka 79, Lee Westwood 74 and Graeme McDowell 79.
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4. BACK FOR MORE: A week after capturing his maiden PGA Tour title, Rickie Fowler was back in the mix coming down the stretch Sunday at The Players. So much for a post-victory hangover.
Fowler, who began the final round three shots back of Kevin Na, double-bogeyed the fifth hole to go out in 37 and seemingly fall off the pace. But he moved back in the hunt with birdies on 11 and 12, moving within two shots of the lead as he played the finishing stretch. Needing to close with a flourish, the 23-year-old birdied 16 and 17, then pushed a 7-foot birdie putt on the last hole, to post 11-under 277. He tied for second.
“I’m finally getting things clicking,” Fowler said. “Just kind of nice to get running on all cylinders.”
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5. BATTLE ROYALE: Luke Donald wasn’t able to reclaim the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, but the Englishman bolstered his sterling resume with his fourth top-6 finish of the season.
Rory McIlroy may still be the No. 1 player in the world, barely, but Donald vaulted up the leaderboard Sunday with a 6-under 66 to finish solo sixth. He needed to finish solo fourth or better to reclaim World No. 1.
“Certainly it was a nice effort to shoot 30 on the inward half there and give myself a chance,” Donald said.
“Going back and forth, it hasn’t meant as much to me,” Donald said of becoming World No. 1. “I’ve obviously experienced being at No. 1. It’s nice. I like to be No. 1. There’s no fluke in getting to No. 1. It’s two years of hard work and being consistent. But obviously my career, I’m still searching to win majors, and that’s much more important.”