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Kuchar steals limelight from top-ranked partners

Friday, April 08, 2011

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Matt Kuchar was one of the American standard-bearers in the first round of the Masters Tournament.

Matt Kuchar climbed to a tie for fifth with 68, his best Masters round as a professional. He played alongside world No. 1 Martin Kaymer, who struggled to 78, and No. 2 Lee Westwood, who had 72. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

The St. Simons Island, Ga., resident was one shot off the lead with three holes to play and settled for a tie for fifth with 4-under-par 68, his best 18-hole score at Augusta National Golf Club as a professional. He is tied with American Ricky Barnes.

Kuchar outclassed his playing partners, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, the world's No. 1- and 2-ranked players. Kaymer appears on his way to missing a fourth consecutive Masters cut after shooting 78 and Westwood, the 54-hole leader last year, missed a 4-foot par putt on the final hole and finished with 72.

Kuchar shot 68 in the third round of the 1998 Masters when he was an amateur and a member of the Georgia Tech golf team. He followed that with 72 and tied for 21st, still his best Masters finish.

His best previous round as a pro at Augusta was 70 in last year's first round.

Kuchar has played in three other Masters since his amateur appearances in 1998 and 1999. He tied for 24th last year in his first visit to Augusta since 2002 and is playing well enough to be confident of even better things this week.

"I'm really pleased with where I finished," Kuchar said. "It's a great spot. I didn't feel like I was doing a whole lot of grinding."

Lance Bennett, Kuchar's caddie for the past five years, said his boss has gotten more comfortable with every round in the past two years at Augusta.

"He loves this place and he's playing very confidently here right now," Bennett said.

Kuchar is the PGA Tour's defending money and scoring leader, and he was second on last year's FedEx Cup points list. He has won three times, including a Fedex Cup event at The Barclays last year, and has one thing left to prove: "To contend seriously, very seriously, at a major championship," Bennett said.

Kuchar missed only four greens Thursday, and his six birdie putts were 10 feet or less. His only bogeys came on a three-putt at No. 9 and an 8-foot miss for par at No. 16 after he missed the green long and right.

"I've put in some great work with (teacher) Chris O'Connell, and he's made me a better, more consistent player," Kuchar said. "I feel like most of the time, I know where the ball is going. It's a great feeling."

Reach Garry Smits at (904) 359-4362.

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