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With Barclays win, Kuchar in player of year hunt

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PARAMUS, N.J. -- There isn't much debate anymore.

After putting together what is arguably the most consistent season of any player in the game this year, Matt Kuchar has roundly been anointed the most-improved player in the game over the past couple of seasons. Take it from the guys who watch from inside the ropes, too.

"Oh, there's no doubt," said Jimmy Johnson, Steve Stricker's caddie.

After what transpired Sunday at The Barclays, where Kuchar won his third title, a similar question with a new wrinkle beckons.

During a 2010 season of near-comical parity, where no player has won more than twice on the PGA Tour and longtime assassins Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson have combined for exactly one win, maybe there's another honor within reach.

"People have been talking about Player of the Year," said Kuchar's caddie, Lance Bennett. "I think they ought to start looking at him. He's got to be in the conversation, at least."

Gentlemen, start your tongues.

After flirting with winning at the Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship in his previous two starts, Kuchar stormed from behind to win the FedEx Cup series opener at Ridgewood Country Club, edging Scotland's Martin Laird on the first hole of sudden death.

The Barclays: Final round
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Kuchar, 32, practically blushed when the POY possibility was broached. But the victory marked his 10th top-10 finish of the season, he leads the tour in scoring average and is ranked No. 1 in the tour's all-around statistic, a compendium of the eight key metrics of player success.

Other than that, he's a complete cadaver in cleats. Amid this career-best run, he also qualified for his first Ryder Cup team by finishing 10th at the PGA two weeks ago.

"I prefer to stay humble," Kooch said.

That's getting tougher by the day. Kuchar started the day five shots behind Laird, but birdied two of the final three holes and shot 66 while Laird was still sweating it out on the narrow confines of Ridgewood.

With a one-shot lead on the 18th, and the tournament seemingly wrapped up, Laird bull-rushed a 23-footer for birdie that he didn't need to make, ran the ball 7 feet past the cup and missed the comebacker. Kuchar finished him off with one of the most memorable shots of the season.

Cameron Kuchar makes it a family celebration, rushing onto the green to greet his victorious dad. (Getty Images)  
Cameron Kuchar makes it a family celebration, rushing onto the green to greet his victorious dad. (Getty Images)  
After hitting his drive in the left rough, Kuchar gouged a running 7-iron out of the rough from 192 yards that he hoped would just bleed onto the green somewhere. Bennett, standing in the fairway in the exact spot where the ball had landed a few minutes earlier, said it was a dump-and-chase shot of sorts.

"We just wanted to run it up here and let it chase," said Bennett, who has worked for Lorena Ochoa and Paula Creamer on the women's circuit.

It looked like it had a homing device. Unexpectedly, it caught a steep slope in the back-right portion of the green and rolled sideways toward the flag, where all Kuchar had to do was not soil himself while he tapped in the clinching putt from 30 inches.

From nearly 200 yards out, Kuchar watched the crowd in the grandstands gradually leap to its feet and do something approximating the wave as the ball zeroed in on the flag. After being close so often this year, he'll certainly take the fortuitous curveball. He gladly will pocket the career-high $1.35 million first prize and the massive points bounty that jacked him eight spots to No. 1 in FedEx Cup points, too.

The FedEx finale is in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, and if he can hang onto the pole position, it means another $10 million in bonus cash. Last year, he bungled the final round at the BMW Invitational and narrowly missed advancing to the finale at East Lake, located near where he went to college at Georgia Tech.

As crazy as it might have sounded six months ago, the guy has a terrific chance of collecting the FedEx booty. Outside of Stricker, who finished T3 this week, the big boys continue to remain in hibernation. Woods, Mickelson and Els haven't threatened to win anything since the U.S. Open and were not in the hunt Sunday.

He has been amazingly steady in the top events already. Kuchar amassed the third-best cumulative record in the majors this year behind Mickelson and Woods and finished in the top 10 at the U.S. Open and PGA. It's no hot streak, either. Kooch has been piling up strong results right out of the chute, with a T2 and third in his first three starts.

That's all well and good. Now that he has finally gotten another taste of winning a bigger event -- his lone win since 2002 was at a second-tier Fall Series tournament last year -- he could get used to it.

"There's nothing like the feeling of winning a PGA Tour golf tournament," Kuchar said, grinning as always. "You feel like you are the best player in the world for this week."

If not, in his case, the whole season.

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