Kuchar climbs closer to lead at Augusta

Matt Kuchar, of the United States, hits his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the Masters.

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— Matt Kuchar smiles at the memories of his first trip to the Masters 15 years ago. You know, the Kuchar smile. It’s as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Back then, he was an amateur sensation here in 1998. He won the hearts of the patrons with a Saturday 68 and a 21st place finish.

Memories, he has a few, such as gripping tightly to the railing and descending the steep, narrow staircase of the Crow’s Nest, the famed attic of the Augusta National clubhouse where generations of amateur competitors have slept.

“You come out of a tiny glass door into the corner of the dining room and the members look at you as if you magically appeared,” he said.

Kuchar’s name on the Masters leaderboard once again is no illusion. After shooting a 75 on Friday, Kuchar bounced back with birdies on all four par-5s and posted a 3-under 69 for a 54-hole total of 4-under 212.

In the third round, Kuchar’s card was clean until he lipped out a 5-footer to three-putt from 60 feet at the 11th hole. It didn't dampen his enthusiasm. Kuchar still took time to enjoy his favorite place at Augusta National when he crossed Hogan’s Bridge to the 12th green. As the U.S. Amateur champion, he stopped to read the plaque every day.

“It's hallowed ground,” Kuchar said. “It's the one place only the players and caddies get to go.”

With an extra spring in his step, he sandwiched birdies at 13 and 15 around a bogey at 14, where his approach sailed long and he missed a 15-footer for par.

“Around this place you take what the course gives you,” he said. “Here the par 5s are opportunities that you want to take advantage of, and I feel great about having birdied all four.”

Kuchar won The Players Championship last May and the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play in February. Now he covets his first major. He finished T-3 last year at Augusta, and flashed his patented smile when asked if he was pleased with his position heading into the final round.

“Last year was my first real time being in contention going late into Sunday,” he said. “It's kind of what we all play golf for, having a chance at a major championship, having a chance at the Masters tournament; it's exciting. I've not quite had the feelings anywhere else that I did when I made the eagle on 15 last year and got right in contention.”

Kuchar said the reward for all the hours of practice is to be in contention late Sunday.

“The more times you're in that situation, the more comfortable you get,” he said. “The more comfortable you get, I think the better you play.”

It would be quite an accomplishment if he ends up wearing a green jacket 15 years after he first made his mark here. That would give him a pretty good reason to smile.

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