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Houston Open Recap: Kuchar's Collapses

Len Hochberg

Len Hochberg

Hochberg covers golf for RotoWire. A veteran sports journalist, he was an editor and reporter at The Washington Post for many years, covering the Washington Capitals. He co-authored a book on the history of hockey.

The week began with the news that Tiger Woods would miss the Masters for the first time in two decades, something we may look back on in a few years as the beginning of a sea change on the PGA Tour. It ended the way so many other weeks have ended in this most bizarre of seasons.

Yet another big-time player - in this case, Matt Kuchar, for the second straight week - collapsed down the stretch, opening the way for a relative unknown to emerge. That would be Matt Jones, who delivered consecutive haymakers on No. 18, a remarkable 1-2 punch that won him the Shell Houston Open for his first Tour victory and the final berth next week at Augusta.

Jones sank a 46-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, then chipped in from 42 yards on the first playoff hole, also No. 18.

The fourth Australian to win on tour this season trailed third-round leader Kuchar by six strokes when the day began, and by two on No. 18. After Jones' theatrics - "That's the best pressure putt we've seen in a looong time on Tour," Johnny Miller said on TV -- Kuchar rinsed his approach and was fortunate simply to bogey to get into a playoff. "That wasn't just pulled, that was fatttt and pulled," Miller said.

Jones finished with a final-round 6-under 66 for a four-day total of 273, tied with Kuchar. Sergio Garcia finished two back after a tournament that leaves him in good standing for the Masters.

Last week, Kuchar's fade at the Valero Texas Open allowed another Aussie, Steven Bowditch, to win for the first time. So, Kuchar has obviously played well enough to contend two weeks in a row. And he has five top-10s in his past nine starts. Unfortunately for him, playing well for roughly 70 of 72 holes won't cut it at Augusta.

The 54-hole leader has now won just nine times out of 20 events this season, with Kuchar, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson - all among the top 12 in the world rankings -- among those faltering on Sunday.

MONDAY BACKSWING

Sergio Garcia

Garcia was the 36-hole leader and, while he didn't finish the deal, he played well enough to contend until the 72nd hole and wind up solo third. He certainly gets consideration as a Masters favorite. Garcia has played well all season, finishing in the top 16 of all five PGA stroke-play events he's entered.

Rory McIlroy

After a lackluster three days, and after a mostly lackluster 2014, McIlroy notched the best scored of the final round, a 7-under 65 that rocketed him up the leaderboard 30 spots and into a tie for seventh. It would seemingly be just what he needed heading to Augusta, where he is the betting favorite in the absence of Woods.

Rickie Fowler

Of all the supposed top-name players not named Woods or Mickelson, perhaps no one had done less this season and needed a good showing heading to the Masters. Solo sixth in Houston qualifies as a good showing. Putting aside the Match Play Championship, in which he finished third, Fowler had not had so much as a top-20 since October.

Phil Mickelson

Another golfer needing good signs this week. And the first one was that Mickelson was able to play all four rounds after withdrawing last week with an oblique injury. Just as important, he turned in his best showing of the season, a T12. And while the feeling is that Mickelson won't be a factor next week - he's simply not playing that well - the three-time champion cannot be overlooked.

Charl Schwartzel

The South African returned to play stateside for the first time in a month, breaking for the birth of his first child. In this tuneup for the season's first major, which he won in 2011, Schwartzel finished T19 in Houston. Whether he's played enough tournament golf to contend at Augusta seems unlikely.

Jimmy Walker

Yes, he still leads the FedEx Cup standings and, yes, he has three wins, but the last one is now two months ago, at Pebble Beach. It's not that Walker is playing poorly - he secured another top-25 in Houston, his 11th in 13 events - it's that he hasn't contended. And Walker traditionally has played his best golf at the beginning of seasons, albeit never as good as he was earlier in 2013-14. As he prepares for his first Masters, it's hard to see him being in the mix.

Henrik Stenson

With a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking in the world with a win, Stenson made the cut but did little else in finishing tied for 54th. He was coming off by far his best showing since last year's FedEx Cup playoffs, T5 at Bayhill. Stenson has never contended at the Masters, with T17s in both 2007 and 2008 his top showings. There's no reason to think he will do better this time around.

Jordan Spieth

Spieth missed a cut for only the second time this season. And while they never come at a good time, it's surely not what he wanted heading into his first Masters. He may be on or near the first page of the leaderboard on the weekend but ... no one has won his first foray down Magnolia Lane since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

Ian Poulter

Poulter is No. 19 in the world, but he's not playing like it. And the first indication came when he was bounced in the first round of the Match Play Championship by Rickie Fowler. Poulter missed the cut in Houston with a second-round 77 and heads to Augusta still looking for his first major title. For all the bravado and Ryder Cup domination, Poulter doesn't seem close to breaking through in a major, at least not this one.

Shawn Stefani

Stefani will not be going to Augusta, as are all the other golfers mentioned in this column. But he did secure his playing privileges for the rest of 2014 by finishing fifth in Houston, his best showing in 25 career PGA Tour events. Stefani was in the field on a sponsor exemption in his second and final start on a minor medical extension, needing no worse than a tie for 35th to advance to a major medical. And he obviously blew through that threshold. Stefani suffered a neck injury late last year.