DUBLIN, Ohio — They are something of smiling mirror images, Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar, separated by a dozen years and half a continent, but by not much else. They both seem relaxed, at ease with themselves. Each won early in his PGA Tour career. Each then fell off a cliff, leaving futures teetering. And now each is something of a machine, making the cut every time he tees it up, contending more often than not.
“I feel like it’s a compliment to have similarities to Steve Stricker,” Kuchar said.
“And similar people,” Stricker said. “Both pretty reserved, I think. . . . And our careers have been fairly similar over the years.”
Sunday afternoon, Stricker and Kuchar will tee off in the final round of the Memorial Tournament — the event hosted by Ohio native Jack Nicklaus — each trying to notch what would rank among the best victories of his career. On a muggy, steamy Saturday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, Stricker shot a 69 – his third sub-70 round in a row – that could have been much, much better, yet he still sits at 12 under par, best in a solid field. He holds a three-shot lead over Jonathan Byrd, who matched him with 69, and a four-shot advantage over Brandt Jobe and Kuchar, who would have been paired with Stricker on Sunday had he not bogeyed 18.
Sunday will be just the latest example of how Stricker and Kuchar are both long since removed from their nadirs. Stricker, 44, went from 2002 to ’05 with just three top-10 finishes, missing more cuts (47) than he made (44). He lost his PGA Tour card.
“I understand why I was there,” Stricker said. “My commitment to the game. My swing wasn’t good.”
So he reestablished both. Somehow, he won the PGA Tour’s comeback player of the year award in 2006 — and again in 2007. “That shows you how far down in a hole I was,” he said. The digging out included three wins in 2009, two more last year, a rise to third in the world rankings, and a reputation as one of the tour’s most consistent competitors.
Kuchar, 32, won the 1997 U.S. Amateur and received national exposure during a thrilling Masters debut the following year. But by 2006, he, too, had lost his card. He headed back to the minor league Nationwide Tour. He hooked up with swing coach Chris O’Connell, and has now built a repeatable, tighter swing that relies less on timing.
“If I’m not on, I kind of still know what I’m doing with it,” Kuchar said. “I still can find fairways, still can find greens.”
In 2010, Kuchar led the tour in winnings (more than $4.9 million) and scoring average. Now, only Stricker has made more consecutive cuts (33) than Kuchar (28). That kind of turnaround results in the kind of conversation Kuchar had with another tour veteran, Jim Furyk, a couple of weeks ago.
“You know, another 10 more years like this, and you’ll be the Steve Stricker of the PGA Tour,” Furyk said.
“I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind that very much,’ ” Kuchar said. “Strick is just a solid golfer every week.”
This week, he has also been a bit lucky. Friday, he made a hole-in-one at the eighth to take the outright lead. Saturday, he holed out his second shot from 114 yards at the par-4 second for another eagle. “Things are going my way,” Stricker said he thought at the time. When he eagled the par-5 fifth — striping a beautiful 3-iron to seven feet — he was running away with the tournament. A birdie at the eighth gave him a five-shot lead.
“When a guy is holing out from the fairway,” Byrd said, “there’s nothing you can do.”
Stricker, though, started to come back a bit. He made a bogey at the par-5 15th, then another at the torturous par-3 16th, and the field was reeled back in.
“Just a little disappointing that I kind of let it slip away,” he said.
The round, that is. Neither he nor Kuchar let his career slip away. And because of that, they’ll face each other — and a fairly stout field — on Sunday for what would rank as one of their most significant victories.