AUGUSTA, Ga. – The back nine at Augusta echoed with the cry of “Kooch.” After two unspectacular rounds that gave the patrons little reason to cheer, Matt Kuchar made his move Saturday at the Masters with three consecutive birdies at Nos. 13-15 to cap off a 4-under 68 and lift his hopes of winning his first major title.
To see Kuchar in the hunt, just one stroke out of the lead at 212 after 54 holes, should come as no surprise given his recent good form. It was more of the steady, nearly mistake-free golf that has been responsible for six top-10 finishes in nine previous starts this season. In the past two weeks, he finished T-4 at the Valero Texas Open and lost in a playoff at the Shell Houston Open. Kuchar let both of those tournaments slip away, gift-wrapping trophies for Aussies Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones, but Kuchar didn’t seem discouraged. When asked what he would do differently on Masters Sunday, he answered bluntly: “Nothing.”
Kuchar, 35, relishes the chance to have another crack under Sunday pressure. Where better than Augusta, a place he has seemed destined to grab hold of a green jacket since winning the hearts of the patrons as an amateur sensation here in 1998 with a 21st-place finish. In 2012, Kuchar held a share of the lead after an eagle at the 15th hole in the final round before bogeying 16 and finishing T-3. Last year, he climbed into contention, but shot 73 Sunday and finished T-8. His caddie, Lance Bennett, considers Kuchar’s play at Augusta comparable to his natural progression into a six-time Tour winner.
Kuchar will enter the final round of a major closer to the lead than ever before, thanks to his third-round 68. Kuchar got early birdies at Nos. 2 and 3 and struck an 8-iron from 155 yards uphill to 6 feet to make the turn in 33. His card was clean until he flared a 6-iron at 11 right of the green and made bogey.
“That was the only real miss we had all day,” Bennett said.
Kuchar played to his strengths and hit 3-wood off the 13th tee, laying up with a hybrid and pitching a 62-degree wedge inside 2 feet for the birdie. At 14, he planted an 8-iron 8 feet past the hole and rolled in the putt, which was no easy task, Kuchar said.
“The greens are as fast as I ever remember seeing Masters greens, a bit on the frightening side,” Kuchar said. “But it’s fun. It’s what we come here for.”
Then he showed off his short-game prowess again at 15 to notch his third straight birdie. From a tight lie over the green, he floated a 62-degree wedge just onto the putting surface and watched it feed to the hole for a tap-in.
“I told him it was one of the top-5 up-and-downs I’ve ever seen him make,” Bennett said.
Kuchar rescued par at 16 and 17 but wasn’t so fortunate at the closing hole. From the fairway, he tried to chip a 7-iron straight at the flag and land it on the lower shelf, but the wind caught it and the ball ended up on the top shelf and hopped into the patron seats over the green.
“I actually hit a beautiful putt from where I was over the green that only barely trickled on the green,” Kuchar said. “I watched my putt just continue rolling out forever and then hit my par putt from some 35 feet, and had it not hit the back of the hole it would have gone 10 or 12 feet by (the hole).”
Kuchar has always had a knack for turning three shots into two. He has ranked in the top 15 in the Tour’s scrambling statistic since 2007. The difference is that he doesn’t have to rely on his short game as much since building a reliable swing with instructor Chris O’Connell.
“I have a swing that repeats and you can count on it to repeat,” Kuchar said.
Will we see a repeat of Kuchar struggling Sunday with the tournament on the line, or will he lay down the hammer to win a green jacket? Kuchar flashed his patented smile when asked if he was pleased with his position heading into the final round.
“You hope that your game is ready,” he said. “You hope you play good golf Thursday, Friday, Saturday and you’ve got a chance in one of the last groups on Sunday. It’s one of those special places and awfully exciting to be in this situation.”