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Kuchar soft? Players Championship title, off-course demeanor belie that

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Matt Kuchar has a competitive streak, but rarely shows it in public. (Getty Images)  
Matt Kuchar has a competitive streak, but rarely shows it in public. (Getty Images)  

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Do not be misled by the grin, which is so ever-present, it borders on painted-on permanent.

Nice guys finish last? Not necessarily, but do not think for a moment that the smile on Matt Kuchar is a sign that he's a pushover or isn't grinding harder than everybody else.

A matter of minutes after Kuchar hoisted the crystal trophy for winning the Players Championship on Sunday, he was asked about how comparatively few times he had delivered a title, despite contending seemingly every time he tees it up.

This admittedly delicate inquiry, well-phrased by a veteran media member, was met with a hilarious blast from the usually mild-mannered man of the moment.

"Yeah, suck it, big guy," Kuchar roared back, drawing the biggest laugh of the week.

Truly uncharacteristic, though, it wasn't.

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Kuchar shot a 2-under 70 on Sunday to win by two strokes at testy, torturous TPC Sawgrass, smiling all the way and doubtlessly prompting even more folks to assume that he's either slightly loopy or the biggest marshmallow in the game.

Not remotely true.

Ask any member of the last U.S. Ryder Cup team, including Phil Mickelson, who learned the hard way that giving Smiling Matty the needle can be a risky proposition, because Kuchar can cut a guy off at the waist with an eviscerating rip. Ask any member of his family, including his parents, who played tennis with Kuchar and his wife before the final round, about his competitiveness.

Find anybody on either team from recent Ryder or Presidents cup matches, who have been so uniformly and summarily destroyed by Kuchar in ping-pong, that there's no question who ranks numero uno in this regard. He taunts them as he crushes them, too.

So, the Goody Two-Spikes thing only goes so far. Heck, the guy was dropping Diamond Cutters, a famous wrestling gesture made famous a few years ago by a World Wrestling Federation star, at the Ryder and Presidents cups, when he or a teammate made a big putt.

So yeah, the guy's got spine -- and plenty of moxie, too.

If you listen closely and know where to look, the signs are there that he's a pretty tough customer and that the grin belies the inner fire of the 33-year-old, who was rewarded with a $1.71 million check on Sunday, won his fourth tour title and rocketed up 11 spots to No. 5 in the world ranking, his highest position ever.

Textbook example: As Kuchar played the 16th hole, just across the water on the 17th green, Ryder teammate Rickie Fowler was making a birdie putt, from perhaps 150 yards from where Kuchar stood. Kuchar calmly knocked in a birdie of his own for a three-stroke lead with two holes to play.

Kuchar blurted out a reaction before the questioner completed the sentence.

"I was pretty excited to stick it right back to Rickie," Kuchar exclaimed, with plenty of gusto, generating even more raucous laughs.

As for his résumé, sure, the victories haven't been many, or very often. But that might be soon to change, since he's at the peak period of what traditionally represents a player's physical powers.

Since the start of 2010, Kuchar has rolled up 24 finishes in the top 10 but only one victory in that span, but he might just gave gathered the requisite strength from his latest near-miss, last month at Augusta National, to finally get over the hump in more of the game's biggest events.

Under duress and fateful back-nine pressure, Kuchar eagled the 15th hole in the final round at Augusta, moving into a share of the lead with three to play, before making a bogey on the 16th and finishing two strokes out of the playoff between winner Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen.

"I think he convinced himself, 'I can play on a big stage, I can win majors,' " caddie Lance Bennett said.

The fifth major, long the nickname for the Sawgrass event, is a pretty good start. He convinced plenty of fans and analysts that he has the game to play with the elite ranks, too. As others around him bounced up and down the board on a breezy Sunday, Kuchar's play was as relentless as the smile that never seems to leave his face.

After a sloppy bogey on the first hole, his only setback was a three-putt bogey at the 17th, but even then, he still held a two-stroke lead.

"He has the perfect demeanor for golf," Bennett said. "He's the most consistent player out here, probably -- he and Luke Donald, I guess. A win had to be around the corner at some point."

Kuchar hit all the right shots in the right spots. Incredibly, he hit 14 of the last 15 greens in regulation on the Pete Dye masterpiece, and 15 for the day. In other words, while others were scrambling to keep pace, Kuchar was practically dissecting the place.

All the while, the you-know-what never left his mug. He's not Tiger Woods, staring stoically ahead as he places a spiked foot on a foe's neck and cuts off circulation. Take this guy, and his megawatt smile, lightly at your own peril.

"It's not meant to fool you, it is completely a natural reaction," he said of his trademark grin. "I love playing the game of golf, I have fun doing it, I am a golf junkie.

"I have to force myself to take vacations where I cannot play golf, where the clubs don't make it, because the game is just always so challenging, and I think it's that challenge that's addictive to me.

"I feel like I'm so lucky to be doing what I do. I'm out there, I'm enjoying myself, having a good time. The smile is there because I'm having a good time, because I'm loving playing golf."

Consider yourself lucky you're not playing against him. Sure, Kuchar smothers 'em with kindness.

But you're still just as dead.

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