LOS CABOS, Mexico — Matt Kuchar’s game was en fuego on Saturday at El Cardonal at Diamante until suddenly it wasn’t.
Kuchar was on ‘59 watch’ as he stepped to the tee at the par-4 15th hole. He had carded nine birdies and an eagle, channeling Tiger Woods on the course Woods designed, and gone from two shots behind Camilo Villegas at the start of the day to seven shots clear of him and six in front of the field. That’s when disaster struck.
Kuchar, 45, made a quadruple-bogey eight after snap-hooking his tee shot into the jungle and a bogey at the next while Villegas, 41, went birdie-birdie and Kuchar’s lead was gone. The whole complexion of the World Wide Technology Championship changed in half an hour. At the end of the day, the two 40-something veterans were tied at the top of the leaderboard at 19-under 197. (This marked the first time that two players age 40 or older share the 54-hole lead since Stewart Cink and Ben Crane at the 2017 FedEx St. Jude Classic.)
“Listen, this course has some trickiness to it,” Kuchar said. “That 15th hole is one I think we all have circled I think this could be a big number, and for me it was today.”
Kuchar didn’t even bother to look for his tee shot at 15, calling off the Golf Channel’s Arron Oberholser, who was walking with the group, from searching for the ball.
“One bad swing is probably all I made,” Kuchar said. “That’s a fairway that’s 70 yards wide. I mean, I hit that one in my sleep…and then from there 15 can kind of creep up and kind of get you.”
That it most definitely did. Kuchar’s provisional found the fairway but the wind tugged his next shot left of the green into a collection area with a steep slope to climb to reach the hole. Kuchar’s next two pitch shots both failed to have enough steam and rolled back near his feet and a penalty area.
“I’m not sure how you play that shot with that steep of a bank,” Kuchar conceded. “Clearly I did not execute it.”
So far, Kuchar had taken six shots and still wasn’t on the green.
“I was standing on the green with my caddie,” said Villegas, who used the slope of the green to perfection and hit his approach to 5 feet to set up a birdie that lifted him to 18 under. “We were going, ‘Wow, he could make six, seven, eight, nine.’ It was a tough spot there.”
Kuchar walked off with the dreaded snowman and a five-stroke swing with Villegas on the hole. It was the sixth quadruple bogey (or worse) of his Tour career and first since the final round of the 2019 Genesis Invitational. Asked what Tiger would have said to him about his performance on 15, Kuchar, said, “He’d probably say why don’t you hit it on the right side of the green, said it’s pretty easy.”
The par-3 16th presented more trouble for Kuchar, whose tee shot barely cleared the arroyo fronting the green and was fortunate his ball stayed just inside the red line of the penalty area. He took a hybrid and used a putting stroke and once again struck the ball too softly to climb the slope and watched in horror as it returned to the rough. He switched to a lofted wedge and lobbed his ball 10 feet past the hole but managed to make the putt.
“Biggest shot of the day for me was that putt for bogey,” he said. “That’s one like walking off the green, I think had that not gone, in my head might have hung a little low.”
Kuchar admitted that his head was on the verge of spin mode.
“Certainly I saw things going quickly, but I think I was able to stay about as calm as I’ve ever been when I’ve kind of seen these things start to move as quick as they move,” he said.
Kuchar closed with a pair of pars for a 67, which included holing out from 30 yards with a lob wedge at the first and six birdies in going out in 29 (with a bogey at No. 4.) He had strung together three more birdies in a row beginning at No. 12 before Tiger’s layout got its revenge.
In the grand scheme of things, Kuchar’s still a 54-hole co-leader as he bids for his 10th career PGA Tour title on Sunday and Kuchar, who always plays with a smile on his face, preferred to look at his day as the glass being half full.
“You could look at it multiple different ways,” he said. “I shot 5 under today, played really good golf. I really like the state of my game, so here I am. I’m pretty good at letting that stuff roll off my back.”
Here are four more things to know about the third round of the World Wide Technology Championship.
Camilo Villegas wasn’t as smooth as the first two day when he posted a pair of 64s, but he made three birdies on his final four holes to shoot 69 and share the 54-hole lead with Kuchar.
“Putter wasn’t as hot, but I think overall it was positive,” Villegas said. “I mean, I’m in the final group tomorrow, that’s good.”
Villegas made bogeys on his final two holes of the front nine to tour the first nine in 1-over 37. He was beginning to lose touch with Kuchar until his late meltdown and the best of Villegas’s game re-emerged with five birdies on the second nine and one bogey, a three putt at 17.
Villegas, 41, is seeking his fifth Tour title and first since the 2014 Wyndham Championship. He’s playing this week on a sponsor exemption and entered the week No. 223 in the FedEx Cup standings.
Erik van Rooyen has a lot at stake on Sunday.
The 33-year-old South African native’s exemption for winning the 2021 Barracuda Championship runs out at the end of the season and he entered the week No. 131 in the FedEx Cup standings. But this week he’s been sharp and on Saturday he started birdie-birdie-eagle and was 5 under for his first six holes en route to shooting 6-under 66. He sits alone in third at 18-under 198.
Count van Rooyen among those who was surprised to see Kuchar let so many guys back into the title hunt.
“I mean Kooch, the great player that he is, you don’t really expect him to make too many mistakes,” he said.
Van Rooyen has a simple game plan for the final round: “Make more birdies. You know, if it’s as calm as it was this morning, someone’s going to get to 25. So just keep making birdies.”
Patton Kizzire picked a good day for his putter to be more friend than foe. After a pair of 69s to make the cut, he fired a bogey-free 9-under 63 to climb to 15-under 201 and T-7.
“I liked my putter today. I’ve been struggling on the greens the last two days and today I freed it up and started seeing it go in. It was a lot more fun on the greens today,” said Kizzire, who could use a good finish to improve his chances of keeping his Tour card for next season. “I feel like I’ve been trying too hard. Today I was like, well, that’s not working, so we’ll try a little bit easier and see what happens. It was a good day.”
- Kuchar would be the oldest PGA Tour winner since Phil Mickelson at the 2021 PGA Championship (50 years, 11 months, 7 days). With a win, he would become the 117th player to reach 10 wins on Tour.
- Villegas, who ranks 752 in the Official World Golf Ranking, would be the lowest-ranked player to win on Tour since Ryan Brehm (No. 773) at the 2022 Puerto Rico Open.
- Five players at T-7 or better entered the week No. 125 or lower in the FedEx Cup standings: Villegas (T-1, entered No. 223, projected No. 98); van Rooyen (3rd, No. 125, No. 90); Kizzire (T7, No. 130, No. 126); Scott Piercy (T7, No. 134, No. 129); and Kramer Hickok (T7, No. 144, No. 132)