PEBBLE BEACH — In Matt Kuchar’s almost two decades on the PGA Tour he has racked up nine victories and nearly $50 million in career earnings—all while steering clear of controversy.
Until this year.
It started in January when it was revealed that Kuchar lowballed his local caddie, David (El Tucan) Ortiz, with only $5,000 after winning $1.29 million at the Mayakoba Golf Classic last fall.
(Kuchar defended himself by saying it “wasn’t a story” and that “making $5,000 is a great week,” before eventually relenting, apologizing and making El Tucan whole with an additional $45,000.)
Then came the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Match Play, where his opponent Sergio Garcia raked a tap-in before Kuchar had conceded it. Garcia’s fault, yes, but Kuchar only dirtied things by saying at the time, "‘Sergio, I didn't say anything. I'm not sure how this works out. I didn't want that to be an issue,’” then tracking down an official.
(Garcia lost the hole, and incredibly suggested Kuchar could make things even by conceding a hole, to which Kuchar declined. Eventually, the two kissed and made up in a forced and awkward video in which they said they were “all good” with each other.)
It didn’t end there, with Kuchar next embroiled in an odd rules snafu at the Memorial, where he tried to finagle a free drop from a pitch mark that he claimed had come from his tee shot, despite a video replay and laws of physics proving otherwise.
(Two rules officials and a TV replay were needed to sort it out but even then Kuchar tried to seek a third opinion.)
Despite all of this, Kuchar managed to add a second win to his season—at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where the caddie controversy first reared its head mid-tournament—and had a chance for a third after being tied for the lead through 54 holes at last week's RBC Canadian Open. He also has six other top-10 finishes and leads the FedEx Cup standings.
“It’s definitely been a tougher year than most,” Kuchar conceded Tuesday on the driving range at the U.S. Open. “I've never been in any sort of controversy before.”
Known for the bulk of his career for his "aw-shucks" demeanor and harmless pranks, Kuchar was suddenly coming across—particularly to the social media mob—as everything from a cheapskate, to classless, to tone deaf. Was this the real Kuchar?
Judging by his play, however, perhaps another word should come to mind: Ruthless. Or at the very least skilled enough to endure in the face of obstacles that would easily derail plenty of other players’ seasons.
“I don’t know if it’s compartmentalizing or I don’t know if it’s just I believe in what I'm doing with my golf game,” Kuchar said. “I'm doing a lot of things to keep me playing well.
“And it probably helps I don’t do social media. It helps I don’t look at any of these things. But I think a lot of it is what I'm doing with my game has been really good.”
Among those things is his improved driving—Kuchar ranks 54th in strokes gained/off-the-tee this year, compared to 150th last season—and sharpening the other parts of his game that were already good; specifically his iron play, short game and putting. All of which should come in handy at Pebble Beach, where he tied for sixth the last time the U.S. Open was played here.
Which brings us to the other thing Kuchar has steered clear of in his career: Winning a major.
A dozen times, he has finished in the top 10, which included a runner-up at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale two years ago. There have been other opportunities, too.
At age 40, however, those chances figure to be dwindling. But if Kuchar can not just persist but thrive the way he has in a year filled with controversies and personal travails, who knows.
“I’d rather not have a countdown clock on the amount of chances I have left,” Kuchar said. “I feel good about the state of my game and the state of my health. You need all those working together to pull off a major championship.”
Thick skin helps, too.
Originally Appeared on Golf Digest