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Hong Kong Open

Confident Kuchar loving his travels and relishing McIlroy contest

American hopes to slug it out with world No 1 McIlroy at this week's tournament in Fanling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 4:09am
 

Matt Kuchar might have been home for about a week but his feet have yet to firmly touch the ground. Visits to Turkey, Greece, China and Thailand over a month of travel with his wife and two sons have reminded the American once again how fortune has smiled on his life - and on his golf game.

"I've just been thinking how amazing these opportunities are," Kuchar says from his home on St Simons Island, Georgia. "I have checked off already a great number of the highlights of the things I wanted to see in the world. I'm amazed that by the age of 35 I have seen so many amazing places and it is all because I can play golf."

Next stop on the Kuchar world tour will be this week's UBS Hong Kong Open, where the world No 13 will be joined by wife Sybi (sorry, not this time, kids) as he visits the city and the tournament for the first time. When the invitation call came, Kuchar didn't take much convincing.

"It's a place I have always wanted to go," he says. "When the opportunity arose I ran it by my wife and there really was no decision to make.

"I've heard that it's a fun, tight golf course that is really enjoyable to play."

There's also the little matter of the man who may well stand in the way of Kuchar and victory at Fanling - Rory McIlroy. The American has had a few recent run-ins with the world No 1 and defending champion.

First, as part of the losing Ryder Cup team at Medinah in Illinois in September, he watched as McIlroy and the Europeans came from 10-6 down entering the final day's play to snatch an improbable victory over the hosts. Kuchar was part of winning American combinations on the Friday and Saturday (with Dustin Johnson) but lost 3 & 2 to Lee Westwood as the Europeans pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Kuchar and McIlroy then went toe-to-toe at the World Golf Final in Turkey, with the American winning their match-up by six shots, before bowing out of the tournament himself with losses to Tiger Woods and Charl Schwartzel.

"Rory is a fantastic player and continues to get better," says Kuchar. "It will be interesting to see just how great a player he becomes because his learning curve is crazy. He's improving all the time and everybody likes to be around him. We had a good time with him and his girlfriend, Caroline [Wozniacki], in Turkey and you like to see quality people do well.

"It's fun to see a good guy like him have success and I know he won last year in Hong Kong. Any time you can test yourself against the best it's a challenge so I'm really looking forward to it."

It might well be a good thing Kuchar has kept on the move - he also played at the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-am in Hainan last month - as the Americans' Ryder Cup loss could have been a haunting one for the fragile of ego or temperament, if not looked at in the right way. Defeats in golf have rarely come so brutal or so public as the whole world was watching on in rapture.

Kuchar says the competition has over the years become so close between the two teams it's now almost expected the outcome will come down to the last few Sunday singles match-ups.

"Team USA had got off to such a fantastic start but the Sunday is just a different thing entirely," he says. "You're back to more individual golf and there's so many more tee times that you kind of go off and do your own thing because there so many matches. You don't see as many of your teammates. It went from one of the greatest highs to such a devastating low, as a sportsman."

It helped ease the pain somewhat, he says, to look at the bigger picture. And you're left almost believing him. "As a sports fan it was such an amazing competition and that's how we ended up having to view it," he says. "It was exciting for the game to see so much passion and so much interest. It was something very special to have been a part of, even though the result didn't go our way."

A decision by his mother to take on a full family membership at the Heathrow Country Club in Orlando, Florida, saw Kuchar first pick up a golf club aged 12, and he says there was no looking back. "I wanted to be Boris Becker when I played tennis. I wanted to be Magic Johnson when I played basketball. But when golf came along, that was it. I knew it was the game for me," he says.

A two-time all-American at Georgia Tech, Kuchar won the US Amateur in 1997 and since entering the pro ranks in 2000, he has collected seven titles, the biggest of all coming at The Players Championship this year at TPC Sawgrass. Kuchar also finished third at the Masters this year and overall has racked up 30 top-10 finishes since 2009.

"I've had a fantastic couple of years," says Kuchar. "I've really been able to raise the level of my game. This past year the highlight was winning The Players Championship, of course. To beat arguably the best field in the game of golf on one of the most difficult courses we play on all year, it really was a thrill.

"It was quite an accomplishment to be able to stand up to the best in such a tough test. It really makes you feel like you can play with anybody, anywhere. It gives you a whole lot of confidence and that is so important in this game, and in sport."

The seeds of that confidence were first sown in 2010 when Kuchar emerged with a swing he had started to rebuild in 2008. "I had a fantastic year in 2010, winning the scoring title and being leading money winner on tour," he says of a season where he was picked for the Ryder Cup for the first time.

"It was a great year and made me think I had bigger tournaments to come. I felt before the Players that I had just been building and building. In terms of going on and winning majors, winning the Players has been a great stepping stone in terms of having confidence in myself that I can go on and win one."

It has also raised the very real possibility that one of golf's ultimate team players could even find himself representing his country when golf returns to the Olympics at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. Kuchar was last year part of the USA's World Cup-winning team at Mission Hills alongside Gary Woodland and says playing for his country is the "ultimate honour".

"Well the Olympics have to me always been similar to the Ryder Cup in that I used to just love watching," he says. "I love the personal interest stories about guys that come from a country that shouldn't be able to compete, out there competing and holding their own. You see such amazing things.

"To think now that golf has a chance and I think it should. I have always wondered why golf is not in the Olympics. To have a shot at being part of such an event is exciting and competition for the chance to play at the Olympics will be intense. Everyone will want that chance."

At the recent celebrity event in Hainan, Kuchar found himself paired with the world's greatest ever Olympian, swimmer Michael Phelps, and could be seen handing out a few pointers to a man who looked a little bit out of his depth on the fairways. He says he is constantly amazed at what a great leveller the game of golf is.

"These guys are so athletic and filled with co-ordination and athletic ability, but they struggle with the game of golf," says Kuchar. "It's a difficult game and not a natural game but it's an addictive game."

What the galleries in Hong Kong will see later this week is a player who has his game finely tuned - and one which on the evidence at least, should suit the tight Fanling layout.

"My game is a just a steady, all-round game and I take pride in the fact I don't have any weaknesses," says Kuchar. "I don't have the booming drives but I find fairways, I find greens and I make the game as simple as possible. It's just a basic game that works well and it works well under pressure."

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