Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. • Matt Kuchar burst onto the golf scene in 1998 as a 19-year-old amateur with a winning smile and the game to compete on the sport’s biggest stages.
But it took 15 years for Kuchar to fully arrive, on Sunday at The Players Championship.
A month after he was in the mix on the final day at the Masters, Kuchar closed the deal Sunday to capture the PGA Tour’s showcase event and golf’s biggest paycheck, $1.71 million. Kuchar relied on rock-solid play from tee to green and timely putting in pressure conditions to hold off several players making a charge at TPC Sawgrass.
Kuchar finished the day at two-under-par 70 for a 13-under 275 total and a two-shot victory over a quartet led by Martin Laird and Rickie Fowler. Kuchar’s win was his fourth in a career filled with ups and downs, including a stint on the Nationwide Tour, and the first victory by an American at the Players since Phil Mickelson in 2007.
When Kuchar, 33, sank a 2-foot par putt on the final hole, he raised his arms as the crowd cheered and his wife and two children rushed onto the green to celebrate with him.
“I’m about to buckle,” said Kuchar, a former resident of the area whose parents still live in northern Florida. “It’s such a great feeling to play against the best in the world on a course like this and win.”
Kuchar began the day a shot off the lead, held by Kevin Na, and bogeyed his opening hole. From there, Kuchar navigated Pete Dye’s challenging layout without making the critical mistakes that caught up to each of his competitors.
Na had everyone’s attention Sunday as much for his laborious pre-shot routine as his quality golf. But he tried to pick up the pace in the final, never found his comfort zone and stumbled to a 76 that included four bogeys in a five-hole stretch on the front nine.
“Things started going the wrong way,” he said. “When things are going the wrong way and you’re trying to play fast, those don’t add up very well.”
Meanwhile, Laird turned in the strongest round among the contenders, a 67. But Laird, a 29-year-old Scot, tugged his final iron shot well left and eventually faced a 9-foot par putt on No. 18. Laird had made four birdie putts of 8 feet or longer, but he rolled this attempt by the hole.
With Laird two shot backs at 11 under, Fowler had the best chance to catch Kuchar.
Bidding to become the first back-to-back winner on the PGA Tour since Tiger Woods in the summer of 2009, Fowler birdied two of his first four holes. But he was three over on his next three holes, including a double-bogey on the par-4 fifth hole, when he found bad lies on the edge of bunkers.
Fowler fought back with four birdies on the back nine. He probably needed a fifth to rattle Kuchar, but Fowler’s 8-foot birdie attempt burned the right edge on the 18th hole.
Even though he did not win, Fowler exhibited the talent and fearlessness to contend in the game’s toughest conditions.
“The last few holes were a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a rush out there to be in contention at the Players.”
The moment never seemed too big for Kuchar, who earned his first title since the 2010 Barclays.
The Players Championship
Matt Kuchar -13
Martin Laird -11
Zach Johnson -11
Rickie Fowler -11
Luke Donald -9
Phil Mickelson -3
Tiger Woods -1