Kuchar’s attention turns to upcoming U.S. Open
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — The rewards for winning the Memorial turned out to be more than Matt Kuchar imagined.
Along with a crystal trophy, a seven-figure check, a career-best world ranking or even that coveted handshake with tournament host Jack Nicklaus behind the 18th green at Muirfield Village, Kuchar received an education from golf’s greatest champion.
And that could prove timely with the U.S. Open only a week away.
Winning a major championship not only is next on Kuchar’s career checklist, it’s about the only thing left. He took care of one goal Sunday with his two-shot win at the Memorial because it gave him his first multiple-win season. He previously won the Match Play Championship in February for his first World Golf Championship title. Tiger Woods is the only other player with more than one win on the PGA Tour. It’s tough out there.
As for the majors?
Kuchar finally gave himself a serious look — contending is best defined as having a chance to win in the final hour — at the Masters a year ago. It gave him confidence he could handle the pressure. His philosophy is the more chances he gets, the more comfortable he feels in that situation. And the more comfortable he feels, the better his chances of winning. Otherwise, he tries to look at golf in the most simplistic terms to avoid undue pressure.
And that’s when Nicklaus stepped in.
Even though Nicklaus won the first of his 18 professional majors at age 22 in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, he had a chance to win the 1960 U.S. Open as an amateur at Cherry Hills. That’s where Ben Hogan so famously said Nicklaus could have won by 10 shots if he had known what he was doing.
The question to Nicklaus was what he learned at Cherry Hills he was able to apply two years later when he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
“If Matt would ask me, ‘What would you do coming up with Merion,’ I would only ...” Nicklaus started to say before he was interrupted.
Kuchar leaned close to his microphone, tilted his head toward Nicklaus and said with a smile, “What would you do coming up with Merion?”
“First of all, when you go to a major, you know that you’re going to be more nervous because you feel like you have more pressure on you,” Nicklaus said. “And that’s the biggest reason why I went a week ahead of time to a major. I would go there to get rid of my nervousness, worrying about the rough or about the narrowness of fairways, worrying about the speed of the greens, firmness of the greens, and just being the U.S. Open.”
Nicklaus said he didn’t go just to see and study the nuances of the course (to “get the lines” is how more than one player has described his trip to Merion in recent weeks). He said he stayed until he felt comfortable on the golf course and comfortable with what he was doing.
And then he would go home.
“All I had to worry about then was my playing the event,” he said.
It worked out OK. Nicklaus won the U.S. Open a record-tying four times and was runner-up on four other occasions to Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino twice and Tom Watson.
The U.S. Open can get any player’s attention, especially a small ballpark like Merion. To compensate for the lack of length — at 6,996 yards, Merion will be the first major championship course under 7,000 yards in nine years — the fairways are extremely narrow. The rough is exceptionally deep.
It can be intimidating at first sight even for Nicklaus — on a course where he had already won, no less.
Nicklaus captured his second U.S. Open at Baltusrol, where he set a championship record (since broken) at 275. He returned to Baltusrol in 1980 as a 40-year-old with 15 majors behind him. And all he saw was a long, tough golf course that looked impossible.
“I got so nervous in my practice round,” Nicklaus said. “I said, ‘This thing is a lot longer than I remember. This thing is a lot tougher than I remember.’ And I played three or four days. When I got done with it, I shot 63 in the first round. So I got that all out of my way. Everybody else is coming in on the week of the tournament. I had all those problems out of the way and all I had to do was go play golf.”
The story ended and he looked over at Kuchar sitting next to him.
“I don’t know what you’re doing next week,” Nicklaus said.
“I’ll be going to Merion,” Kuchar said.
Once the laughter subsided, Nicklaus told another story of the time he encouraged longtime friend Gary Player to skip a tournament and go the week before to Bellerive outside St. Louis to prepare for the 1965 U.S. Open.
“He went to Bellerive, we played for a week and he won the tournament,” Nicklaus said. “I shouldn’t have taken him.”
Kuchar was headed Monday to Baltusrol for a corporate outing with one of his sponsors. He said he would drive from New Jersey to Merion “and be there Tuesday until an unknown time, until I get used to it.”
He wouldn’t be alone, of course. Tiger Woods was at Merion last week. Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald are headed there this week. Masters champion Adam Scott said his goal was to play seven rounds before his tee time June 13.
Even if a player gets rid of any nervousness or concern about the golf course, he still has to play good golf. The U.S. Open is a stern test.
Kuchar had some tough years when he had to go back to the minor leagues. He found a new coach and changed his swing. He has become one of the most consistent players in golf, with more top 10s than anyone over the last three years. He is a regular on the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams. The Memorial was his sixth career win on the PGA Tour.
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