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Inside the Ropes: Kuchar on course for major title

The SportsXchange

In 2011, Keegan Bradley ended an American drought of six majors without a victory by winning the PGA Championship.

Last year, Bubba Watson captured the Masters and Webb Simpson claimed the U.S. Open title, and for each of the three, it was the first majors championship of his career.

It might be Matt Kuchar's turn, perhaps as soon as next month in the U.S. Open at Merion.

"I think the more comfortable you get winning tournaments -- I've now got five wins, and I'd like to continue that going," said the 34-year-old Kuchar, who is playing this week in the HP Byron Nelson Championship after a disappointing tie for 48th in his title defense at the Players Championship. "Majors are certainly on my radar. I think all of us try to peak for major championships. Everybody wants to get their game in the best shape possible for majors. ...

"I would like to kind of be 'on' with regularity and play well week in and week out, and I felt like that was the best preparation and just continue playing well and let that carry into major championships and just keep the good play going."

The upward turn of Kuchar's career since 2009 reads like a roadmap heading toward a major championship.

Kuchar ended a seven-year, non-winning streak by capturing the 2009 Turning Stone Resort Championship during the Fall Series, and things took off from there.

The following year, he captured the Barclays to open the PGA Tour playoffs for the FedEx Cup. He added a victory last year in the Players Championship and earlier this season in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he beat defending champion Hunter Mahan in the final.

Not only has he shown he can win the big tournaments, but he also leads the PGA Tour with 33 top-10 finishes in the past three-plus seasons.

"I've always thought you were supposed to take the appropriate steps to get to the next level," said Kuchar, whose brilliant amateur career included a victory in the 1997 United States Amateur. "I've always thought that like in school, you kind of graduate elementary school, get to middle school, you graduate middle school and get to high school and then college, and those are the steps you take. You don't jump straight into college, and you don't jump straight into advanced-placement courses. You kind of take these little steps to get there.

"I thought the same was applicable with golf. I felt like you kind of start playing well, you start top-10ing, you start having a lot of chances, and then you win a tournament. Then you start doing the same in bigger tournaments. You start having better and better results, and you take those steps and feel more and more comfortable in the big tournaments, majors included, and I feel like I've made the right progressions.

"I've been pleased at kind of the trajectory of my career the last couple years."

That Kuchar, who has been in or near the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings the last few years, has become a major player is no surprise to anyone who saw him play during a brilliant amateur career.

After claiming the U.S. Amateur title at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club outside of Chicago, he earned the 1998 Haskins Award as college player of the year as a sophomore at Georgia Tech and finished as low amateur in the Masters and the U.S. Open that year.

Kuchar earned six titles for the Yellow Jackets before his graduation in 2000 in business management, before he briefly took a job in finance to have something to fall back on, just in case.

All it did was help him know what to do with his money once he turned pro.

In 2001, he earned his PGA Tour card without going to qualifying school by making $572,669 in six tournaments, including a tie for second in the Texas Open at La Cantera and a tie for third in the Air Canada Championship.

Kuchar broke through for his first victory on the circuit in the 2002 Honda Classic, and then ... almost nothing, for nearly seven years.

"Golf is a difficult and humbling game," the 6-foot-4 Kuchar said of how it brought even a big man like him to his knees. "I think it's gotten the best of everybody at times. So it was at times very frustrating. I think it's one of those things, even when you're playing great, the game of golf can still bring you right back down and humble you pretty quickly. ...

"Yeah, there were times I felt like I was going to have a hard time fighting my way back, and fortunately with my work with (instructor) Chris O'Connell, it's really been this upward climb where I feel like there's still a lot of improvements we can make. I feel like we've made a great deal of improvements, and I feel like there's still a lot of room to get better."

Kuchar turned to O'Connell in 2006, when he also went back to what was then the Nationwide Tour (now the Web.com Tour) and relearned what it was like to compete and win. He captured the Henrio County Open and finished second in the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open and the Nationwide Tour Championship.

It restored the upward momentum of his career, and he has reached new heights by finishing in the top 10 in majors five times in the past four seasons, including ties for third and eighth the past two years in the Masters.

"I'm certainly looking forward to contending more in majors and hopefully getting my chance to win a couple," Kuchar said.

Once he breaks through, it might be as simple as one-two-three.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: HP Byron Nelson Championship at TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas in Irving, Texas, Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 3-6 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m. EDT and 3-6 p.m. EDT on CBS.

LAST YEAR: Jason Dufner holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole to claim his second PGA Tour victory by one stroke over 20-year veteran Dicky Pride, whose only victory on the circuit came in the 1994 St. Jude Classic. Dufner, then 35, posted four scores in the 60s to win for the second time in four weeks, having claimed his first victory in a playoff over Ernie Els at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Pride, then 42, also posted four scores in the 60s, matching Dufner's closing 3-under-par 67 by sinking a 13-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole and a 22-footer for par on the final hole after hitting his tee shot into the water. J.J. Henry took the lead with a hole-in-one from 154 yards with a pitching wedge on the third hole and was one stroke ahead of playing partner Dufner on the 17th tee. However, Henry hit his tee shot over the green and eventually missed a four-foot putt to card a double-bogey 5 to close with a 68, leaving him in a tie for third.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: 74th Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, May 23-26.

TV: Thursday and Friday, noon-3 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m. EDT on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Roger Chapman of England built a nine-stroke lead early in the final round and held on to claim his first victory on the Champions Tour by two shots over John Cook at Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor, Mich. The 53-year-old Chapman, who had only three professional victories previously, added the U.S. Senior Open less than a month later. In the Senior PGA, he built a five-stroke lead after 54 holes with rounds of 68-67-64 before closing with a 1-over-par 72, carding bogeys on three of the last five holes. Kenny Perry posted a tournament-record 62 in the final round, but all it got him was a tie for ninth, five strokes behind Chapman.

LPGA TOUR: Mobile Bay LPGA Classic at the Crossings Course at Magnolia Grove in Mobile, Ala., May 16-19.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 5-7 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Stacy Lewis held a five-stroke lead early on the final day, only to be caught by teenager Lexi Thompson. However, Lewis regained the lead with a birdie on the 16th green and claimed her third victory of the LPGA Tour with a two-putt par on the final hole to close out a 3-under-par 69. Thompson, who was 17 at the time, pushed Lewis all the way to the finish, closing with rounds of 66-65. Lewis, the only player in the field to record four scores in the 60s, hit her second shot at No. 15 into the water left of the green and carded her first bogey in 24 holes. That dropped her into a tie with Thompson, but Lewis, who has won five times since, bounced back with the birdie on the next hole after a brilliant chip shot, and she closed with two pars.
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