With the yakkers on Boston sports radio stations continuing to obsess about Josh Beckett’s recent golf outing (as only Red Sox fans and pundits can do), and the pitcher himself morphing into this season’s version of bullpen buddy John Lackey, what a refreshing change of pace it was to witness Matt Kuchar’s victory Sunday at The Players Championship.
Unlike Beckett, his unlikeable teammate Lackey, and so many other professional athletes who snarl at reporters, appear put out by fans seeking a few moments of their heroes’ precious time, and complain bitterly about their multi-million-dollar day jobs, Kuchar actually seems to enjoy what he does for a living. The four-time PGA Tour winner even credits his parents for raising him with the ability to withstand the vagaries of a career in which you’re hoisting a trophy one week and missing the cut the next.
“I had a great upbringing with a father that pushed me, that challenged me,” he told reporters Sunday after finishing at 13-under in a two-shot triumph over Rickie Fowler and three others. “And I had a mother ... that made sure that I also enjoyed the game, and I found that the more fun I had on the golf course, the better I played.”
Fun? On a golf course? Quite a foreign concept for many touring pros as well as everyday duffers, who fume their way around the links with as much joy for their recreational activity as Beckett has for his vocation. And then there’s Kuchar, the former amateur standout whose ear-to-ear grin and all-American, aw-shucks demeanor won fans worldwide with his cinderella performance at the 1998 Masters.
The apple-cheeked Georgia Tech grad has come a long way and shed a few locks of hair in the 14 years since his magical debut at The Masters, but never has he lost his love for the game that has earned him more than $20 million in career paychecks and a reputation as one of golf’s good guys. Indeed, Kuchar was not the least bit wary of sounding like a star-struck fan, as he marveled at the prospect of joining some of golf’s legends in The Players winner’s circle.
“I can't help but stop and gaze at all the photos going through champions tunnel, and to think I'm going to be a part of that with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd and Phil Mickelson and David Duval and Tiger Woods, it's all the best of the best,” Kuchar said. “To feel like I'm going to see my picture up there next year is pretty cool.”
What’s really cool is how Kuchar considers himself one of the fortunate few who can’t wait to get to the office. "I feel like I'm so lucky to be doing what I do. I'm out there, I'm enjoying myself,” he said. “The smile is there because I'm having a good time, because I'm loving playing golf.”
On those days when he’s missing greens and watching putts slide by, Kuchar conceded he may not be quite so upbeat, but he promised you won’t catch him drop-kicking a 9-iron, a la Tiger Woods at this year’s Masters. “If I'm shooting 10-over par, you're probably not going to see me real happy,” he admitted. “I'm hopefully going to behave myself appropriately, thanks to my mother, but I'm not going to be near as happy as when I'm making birdies.”
Kuchar even kept his cool while paired in Sunday’s finale with Kevin Na, golf’s living, breathing embodiment of the glaciers whose fidgety pre-shot ritual must drive his playing partners bonkers. Not Kuchar.
“I had people say ‘try not to watch him,’ and I think it's like trying not to look at the leaderboard. You just have to,” Kuchar said. “I mean, I could have plugged my ears and closed my eyes maybe. That could have been a game plan. But I knew going in that that sort of thing wasn't going to get the best of me.”
For those who might worry that Kuchar’s just too nice to be real, rest assured that he’s not above a bit of gamesmanship. After all, you don’t win out there on tour without a healthy dose of competitiveness.
“I was pretty excited to stick it right back to Rickie,” Kuchar acknowledged about draining a birdie putt on 16, seconds after Fowler canned a two on the par-3 17th to narrow the lead. “I saw the putt. I actually had my eye watching it to see the break a little bit. ... Watched the thing disappear and he gave a big fist pump. I knew it got him to within two shots and he could birdie 18 to bring it within one.
“That could have changed the whole scenario of how I would have approached and played 18,” Kuchar said. “So I was really excited to drop that birdie on 16. That was big.”
For sure it was, but not as big as the smile Kuchar displays when waxing poetic about the pleasure he gets from teeing it up whenever, and wherever, he can.
“I love playing the game of golf. I have fun doing it,” he said of his self-professed addiction to his calling that is also a pastime. “I am a golf junkie.”
Which brings us back to the joyless Beckett, who was slated to take the mound Tuesday. No doubt, Fenway Park will be a smile-free zone for at least an inning -- or however long the erstwhile ace lasts before the Mariners knock him out of the box and back onto the course.