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Matt Kuchar’s eagle at 18 puts him in contention at US Open

Matt Kuchar watches his tee shot on the seventh hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 14, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Matt Kuchar watches his tee shot on the seventh hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 14, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
By Josh Dubow Associated Press

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Matt Kuchar’s reputation took a major hit when a story emerged this year that he paid his fill-in Mexican caddie only $5,000 after winning a tournament that earned him nearly $1.3 million. It wasn’t helped by a flap with Sergio Garcia at the Match Play event in March.

The best way to change the topic will be by contending for a U.S. Open title this weekend at Pebble Beach.

Kuchar finished his second round Friday with an impressive eagle on the par-5 18th hole, giving him a second straight 2-under 69 and lifting him within three shots of early leader Justin Rose.

“I really don’t worry,” Kuchar said about his spot on the leaderboard. “You do the best you can. I feel like I’ve had two good days and hope for two more good days.”

After starting out with three birdies on the first seven holes Friday, Kuchar was in danger of having a very bad day following some slipups on the back nine.

Kuchar drove into the rough down the left side off the tee and could only advance the ball 75 yards on his second shot from a bad lie. His approach shot then went into the rough near the green and he two-putted for a double bogey 6 after a pitch to less than 10 feet on the green.

An errant drive led to another bogey at 13, but Kuchar came up big on the two par 5s on the back nine. He made a short putt for birdie on 14 then delivered his best hole of the day on 18 after another bogey at the par-3 17th.

Kuchar hit a perfect drive nearly 300 yards down the left side and then hit his approach shot to the rough behind the green, about 20 yards from the hole. He then chipped in for eagle, waving his hat to the appreciative fans chanting “Kooch!”

“It’s a great way to leave the course,” said Kuchar, who finished his first round with a birdie at No. 9. “A couple of different ways you can leave. I can’t think of a much better way to leave the course than holing out on 18 for eagle.”

The controversy around Kuchar started last November when his regular caddie couldn’t make the trip to Mexico for the Mayakoba Classic. So Kuchar hired David Ortiz from El Camaleon Golf Club and won for the first time in more than four years, earning $1,296,000.

But Kuchar initially paid Ortiz only $5,000 rather than the customary 10 percent that PGA Tour caddies typically get from the winner. When that story came out in February, Kuchar took heat that only grew more intense when he defended the payment to by saying, “For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really good week.”

Ortiz wanted $50,000 for his work and turned down an offer of $15,000 before Kuchar relented and paid out what the caddie wanted and apologized for his actions.

That incident has overshadowed a bit of a bounce-back season for Kuchar, who fell out of the top 70 on the PGA Tour money list for the first time since 2007 last season and also failed to make the Ryder Cup for the first time in 10 years.

Kuchar won again with a personal-best 22-under-par 258 at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He then finished second at the Dell Technologies Match Play. But even that was marred a bit when he didn’t immediately concede a 4-inch putt that Garcia casually tapped left-handed and missed, assuming it had been conceded. Kuchar then told Garcia he hadn’t conceded the putt yet and asked a rules official what should happen. Garcia lost the hole and Kuchar apologized, but didn’t take Garcia up on his suggestion of conceding another hole to even it out.

Kuchar then tied for 12th at the Masters and eighth at the PGA Championship. That has helped raise his ranking from No. 40 in the world before his win in Mexico to No. 12 heading into his 17th U.S. Open.

That big chip on 18 now has Kuchar in contention at a tournament where he has posted his only top-10 finish in 16 previous U.S. Opens on this course at Pebble Beach in 2010.

“If you play enough, you tend to make up for things,” he said. “The breaks you get tend to even out.”

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