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Lateral Hazard: Matt Kuchar commands limelight with virtuoso Memorial performance

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Matt Kuchar celebrates after winning the Memorial Tournament. (USA Today)


Matt Kuchar, at age 34, is apparently hell bent we all acknowledge that he is one of the best players on planet Earth.

Maybe that's why he's always smiling. "I'll just keep putting up great performances," he says behind those pearly whites, "and these Tiger Woods- and Rory McIlroy-obsessed lunatics will have to acknowledge the magnificence of 'Kooch'."

So, from us, to you, buddy, a hearty: "KOOOOOOOOOCH . . . "

He deserves the love. After a triumph at Jack Nicklaus' prestigious Memorial tournament, while Tiger and Rory were fumbling around in bunkers, firing golf balls into water hazards and running short putts past the hole at breakneck speed, Kuchar carved a final-round 68 for his second win of the year. His other was also against a big-time field, the World Match Play at Dove Mountain in chilly February, when he took down Hunter Mahan while wearing snow gear borrowed from that 80-year-old Japanese guy who climbed Mount Everest.

How hot is Kuchar? He's made the cut in all 13 of his stroke-play starts this year, and 21 of 22 last year. That's one missed cut in the last two years. Rory would murder for that kind of consistency. Heck, I think McIlroy sometimes misses two cuts in one week.

[Watch: Highlights from Sunday's Memorial action]

Of course, this being golf, everybody wants to know: Can Kuchar, who was ranked No. 9 in the world and will likely be top-5 now, be considered great without a major championship?

And of course, this being golf, everybody wants to know: Wouldn't Merion's U.S. Open next week be the ultimate place for Kuchar to win? After all, they tell us Merion is a ballstriker's heaven which will reward patience, putting and strategy – all the qualities that make Kuchar who he is.

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Matt Kuchar celebrates with his family after winning the Memorial. (Getty)

The answers, of course, await. And you'd be a fool to overlook Kuchar. But there's also that weird golf history that being SO hot coming into the U.S. Open – Kuchar was runner-up last week at Colonial after holding the 54-hole lead – means the game owes Kuchar a backhand across his smiling mug. You don't just go out and win U.S. Opens because you're sizzling on the links. Rather, that's the time the U.S. Open gods tap Webb Simpson at Olympic in 2012 (missed two cuts just prior) or Lucas Glover at Bethpage in 2009 (tie-45th, tie-41st in his two prior starts).

So let's not worry too much about Kuchar needing the validation of a major, and instead admire a player with six career wins now, including the last four – the 2010 FedEx playoff Barclays, the 2011 Players Championship, this year's Match Play and now Jack's party at Muirfield Village – in heavyweight events. In case that's not impressive enough, consider that Kuchar's 35 top-10s since 2010 are best on Tour. Kuchar shows up, makes cuts, and generally plays golf better than 90 percent of the field on any given week, making us all feel lesser about how we do our respective jobs.

Can Kuchar launch a multi-major run at this point in his career, with players like Adam (Have You Seen My Green Jacket? It's Rather Splendid) Scott ready and willing to crop up at any random major? On The Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee noted that Ben Hogan – whose swing contained features Kuchar likes to replicate – didn't win his first major until age 32, and then, at 34, he won the Merion's U.S. Open. I'd say the poetic symmetry awaits, except the analogy fails when you consider their personalities. Kuchar's nickname could be 'The Grinning American', while Hogan only made smile-like movements with his facial muscles when he had gas.

No, let's just admire Kuchar's game and see what happens. He isn't long off the tee, but what he does do is avoid three putts (4th on Tour), birdie par 5s with sound game plans and good decisions (5th in par-5 birdies on Tour) and most of all, scores his golf ball (8th on Tour). He led the PGA Tour in scoring in 2010, also.

Put it all together and you have Matt Kuchar leading the kind of life where Jack Nicklaus, sitting greenside as 'Kooch' rolled in one final birdie to hold off Kevin Chappell by two strokes, high-fived Kuchar's two little boys, who clearly had no idea who the blonde haired dude was asking for some skin up top.

That's OK. They wanted to jump into Daddy's arms, and when they did, Kuchar asked them to "lay one on me" as David Feherty interviewed him on CBS. A smack on the cheek from his cute little buggers on national TV, another win in the bag? It's good to be Matt Kuchar these days.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

71-74-79-72 – 8-over 296, Tiger Woods, tie-65th, The Memorial Tournament, Muirfield Village GC, Dublin, Ohio.

Well, there's only one explanation for this shocking turn of events: Sergio Garcia is clearly inside Tiger's dome.

Rimshot, please.

OK, OK, let's all start overanalyzing Tiger's awful week, in which he finished 20 shots behind Kuchar (a record deficit for Tiger in a full-field event) and put up the worst nine-hole score (44 on Saturday's back nine) of his pro career.

Or, let's not start overanalyzing. Sometimes, golf happens. Or, as Tiger said about 15 different ways in his Sunday post-round chat with the media: "It happens." I think he'd love to have included two letters before the "—it" part of that quote, but Tiger usually saves his profanity for on the golf course. 

He even got a pick-me-up from Luke Donald, who tweeted out after Tiger’s Saturday round: “I’m guessing Tiger’s 44 for nine holes today gave every single golfer on the planet hope for their own game. #ThatWasNiceOfHim #GolfIsHard.” Nothing like a electronically transmitted “It’s all good, bro” from a peer to make the Saturday night beer go down smoother.

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Tiger Woods hits a shot on the 11th hole. (AP)

You can't tell me a guy with four stroke play wins in seven starts this year should be overly concerned with a lousy week on a very tough golf course. Besides, the new, post-Escalade-into-a-tree, Sean Foley-coached Tiger is more prone to an inconsistent performance than his past self. Witness this year's missed cut at Abu Dhabi on the European Tour; or this year's first-round Match Play loss to Charles Howell; or a final-round 74 at the Honda Classic en route to a tie-37th. And that's in a year where he's posed with a big trophy four times and returned to No. 1 in the world.

The one aspect of his game that has dazzled the most this year – his putting – was the aspect that abandoned him at Muirfield Village. Tiger finished 71st of 73 players who made the cut in putting. This, in the same year where he set a record for fewest putting strokes over 72 holes in his career back in March.

Maybe it should be noted that Muirfield Village has bentgrass greens – same as Merion – and Tiger said he had consistent trouble finding the speed all week. That's something to watch at the U.S. Open, how Tiger handles the speed of the greens.

On The Golf Channel, Chamblee noted that Tiger's swing changes slightly from week to week in his new iteration, accounting for some of the inconsistency. Combine that with Muirfield Village's many trouble spots, and Tiger had what he called a week of "funky stances," en route to three double bogeys and two triple bogeys on his scorecard.

What did Tiger say is his solution to his woes? "Go home," he said, "and practice."

And likely turn up at Merion, ready to contend deep into Sunday.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"I really don't, but that's OK." -- Jack Nicklaus, in six words sticking a verbal pin into the balloon of Nick Faldo's ego, on CBS.

There's something so refreshing about the Golden Bear's inability to spend time slinging the bull. It's probably why – along with a vibrant family life, a golf design business, money to make elsewhere, a life to live – he's never made the transition to the broadcast booth.

This was a funny moment on Sunday. CBS opened with Faldo reminiscing about the 1977 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village, a walk-in-the-park U.S. victory over Great Britain and Ireland, 12 ½ to 7 ½. But Faldo wanted to make sure the national audience knew that he and Peter Oosterhuis teamed to beat Nicklaus and Ray Floyd, 3 and 1, in the Friday fourball matches that year for a brief moment of glory.

"Remember that, Jack?" Faldo said, puffing his chest out even more than usual.

Nicklaus then delivered his zinger of a return.

The Ryder Cup was such a lopsided affair before Great Britain and Ireland expanded to include all of Europe (read: Seve Ballesteros) that Nicklaus was probably doing crossword puzzles in between shots of that match against a young and plucky, not-yet-Sir Nick Faldo.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Kyle Stanley seems like a nice young player. He earned fame last year when he blew a five-shot lead at Torrey Pines, capped by a 72nd hole meltdown. Then, showing the kind of mettle that wins over sports fans, he bounced back the very next week to win at Phoenix. Cue the soaring theme music.

Only 25 years old, Stanley is one to watch, especially given his third place at New Orleans and his tie-6th at Quail Hollow in the past month. Now, here he was at Jack's Memorial, making noise. Birdies on Nos. 5, 6, 8 and 9 got him to 9-under par, one back of Kuchar.

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Kyle Stanley reacts after missing a putt on the 14th green. (AP)

He came to the par-5 11th hole, thinking birdie and maybe a tie for the lead.

Except ... his tee shot got royally hosed. His lie was not only a fried egg, but a fried egg into the lip of the bunker. Good times! Or, as it's alternately known, the death of a dream.

Stanley did well to even get it out of the bunker, then had to try a risky, too-long approach to the green, which went left. He made bogey, and finished in third place, five shots back.

So, while Kuchar was a deserving winner, and while Chappell made Kuchar sweat a little down the stretch, let's add young Stanley to mix, as well. Let's go back out to the 11th tee box, tell the golf gods not to saddle the young kid with one of the world's worst lies and ... give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The week before a major always feels like that moment in a football pregame when the team finishes its warmups and starts bouncing around midfield before sprinting back into the locker room for a final speech.

That's how it looks for the likes of Tiger and Rory and Kooch, who will skip this week's St. Jude Classic in Memphis to disappear into the cave of preparation for Merion's test.

Of course, Phil Mickelson being quirky Phil Mickelson, he likes to play the week before a major, and will tee it up. He and defending champ Dustin Johnson are part of only five players in the world's top 30 who will head to Tennessee.

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