PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Matt Kuchar knows all about the prestige and the perks of winning The Players Championship. The richest payoff in golf. A three-year exemption to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. What means just as much is a framed picture on a basement wall in a tunnel the public never sees.
Every day at the TPC Sawgrass, Kuchar walked through a tunnel in the clubhouse that is lined with black-and-white photos of the players who have beaten the strongest and deepest field in golf over the last four decades.
Kuchar joined them with a clutch performance Sunday, when he took the lead with a birdie and kept it with two key pars, then navigated his way the final hour as so many other contenders were making mistakes. He closed with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot victory, the fourth of his career and by far the biggest.
''I can't help but stop and gaze at all the photos,'' Kuchar said. ''And to think I'm going to be a part of that with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd and Phil Mickelson and David Duval and Tiger Woods ... it's all the best of the best. To feel like I'm going to see my picture up there next year is pretty cool.''
With his victory, Kuchar also climbed to a career-high fifth in the Official World Golf Ranking from his previous spot at No. 16.
Rory McIlroy remains No. 1, despite missing the cut at The Players, because No. 2 Luke Donald’s sixth-place finish at TPC Sawgrass wasn’t quite enough for him to reclaim the top spot. Lee Westwood is still third after his tie for 63rd, with Bubba Watson, who took last week off, still in fourth.
Hunter Mahan drops from fifth to sixth to accommodate Kuchar, while Tiger Woods, who tied for 40th, stays in seventh. Steve Stricker falls from sixth to eighth after an uncharacteristic missed cut. Martin Kaymer, the 2010 PGA Champion slips a spot to ninth, while new Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson holds onto the 10th spot.
The second 10 includes No. 11 Webb Simpson (down from ninth), No. 12 Justin Rose (down from 11th), No. 13 Adam Scott (down from 12th), No. 14 Louis Oosthuizen (down from 13th), No. 15 Charl Schwartzel (down from 14th), No. 16 Jason Day (down from 15th), No. 17 Dustin Johnson, No. 18 Rickie Fowler (up from 24th with his tie for second), No. 19 Bill Haas and No. 20 Graeme McDowell (down from 18th).
There's a simple reason that Kuchar smiles so much -- he loves playing golf.
A decade ago, Kuchar missed the cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Two days later, on a beautiful Monday afternoon on the Monterey Peninsula, he was spotted sitting on the side of the hill overlooking the eighth tee while eating a sandwich.
''Isn't it a beautiful day?'' Kuchar said when asked just what in the world he was doing.
That certainly was the case on a cloudy, blustery day on a dangerous golf course at Sawgrass. It seemed that way to Kuchar even when he opened with a bogey and quickly fell three shots behind. It felt like that when he was locked in a brief battle with Martin Laird, and when he looked across the water from the 16th green to see Rickie Fowler dressed in his all-orange outfit sink a birdie putt on the island-green 17th to cut Kuchar's lead to two shots.
Kuchar answered with a birdie of his own on the 16th to restore his margin to three shots. He found land on the par-3 17th, even though he three-putted for a bogey that extended the drama for one more hole. And best of all was tapping in for par and celebrating with his entire family.
His wife, Sybi, and two sons rushed onto the green. He hugged and high-fived his mother, the woman who taught him to have fun when he plays golf. He hugged his father, who was on the bag with Kuchar as an amateur in 1998 when he burst onto the scene with that endless smile at the Masters and U.S. Open.
''It's completely a natural reaction,'' Kuchar said of his smile. ''I love playing the game of golf. I have fun doing it. I'm a golf junkie. I have to force myself to take vacations where I cannot play golf, because the game is just always so challenging. And I think it's that challenge that's addictive to me. ... The smile is there because I'm having a good time.
''Now, granted, if I'm shooting 10 over par, you're probably not going to see me real happy. I'm hopefully going to behave myself appropriately, thanks to my mother, but I'm not going to be near as happy as when I'm making birdies.''
Suffice to say Kuchar was thrilled on Sunday.