HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) Matt Kuchar heard the shouts from the crowd on almost every hole at the RBC Heritage pro-am on Wednesday: ”Great Masters, Matt.”
He hopes to keep the excitement from last week’s major going when the RBC Heritage starts Thursday.
”I’ve been very excited about my game,” Kuchar said. ”I haven’t had the results, especially recently. But I’ve put in some good time (at practice) and the work paid off last week.”
Kuchar tied for fourth at Augusta National, his second-best finish and fourth top-10 showing in his last six appearances. This one was punctuated by a 31 on the final nine holes that included a thrilling hole-in-one on the 16th hole.
”It was a real thrill and a great way to finish,” Kuchar said.
Kuchar looks to start the same way at Harbour Town Golf Links. He’s a past champion here, winning in 2014 and ending fifth and tied for ninth the next two visits.
Kuchar believes there’s much to be said about following Augusta with Hilton Head. As much as he loves to compete at the Masters, Kuchar enjoys the more laid-back atmosphere at the RBC Heritage. It doesn’t hurt that his game seems tailor-made for the narrow fairways and smallish greens.
”This is almost like the perfect event after the Masters,” Kuchar said. ”You get in the Lowcountry and feel the blood pressure go down a little bit and you just relax a little.”
And much of the time, the game you honed for a major title try is just as sharp a week later. ”It’s a good opportunity,” he said.
Not for everybody. Most of the games best are using the week for rest and recovery. There’s no newly minted Masters winner Sergio Garcia at the RBC Heritage, no world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson.
Just five of the worlds top 25 are in the field, led by No. 16 Tyrrell Hatton of England. Kuchar (No. 17) is next, then 2016 Masters champ Danny Willett (No. 19), defending RBC Heritage winner Branden Grace (No. 22), and Brandt Snedeker (No. 25).
What they’ll find is a layout that’s a bit more open after Hurricane Matthew rolled through last October, battering the course and island with 90 mph winds that left several damaged trees on the grounds and shattered docks behind Harbour Town’s iconic 18th, the lighthouse hole.
”I think there was actually a boat in the middle of the fairway” on No. 18, two-time RBC Heritage winner Jim Furyk said.
No, Jim, it was a dock. Six months later, though, the course that lost about 300 trees due to the storm is as lush and pristine as ever.
”I wouldn’t say it looks more open,” Furyk said, smiling. ”It looks less tight.”
RBC Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot said the community that saved the sponsor-less event in 2010 pulled together once more to make sure the course was cleaned up. ”We get so much support from the area,” he said.
As the Masters did with its honorary start, the RBC Heritage paid tribute to the life of Arnold Palmer, the tournament’s first champion in 1969. Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, took part in the ceremonial cannon firing that opens the week each year.
”It was a very nice tribute,” Saunders said, ”and wonderful respect for my grandfather. Always good to see so many people showing up for that.”
Kuchar thinks he can carry the good feelings from last week throughout this tournament. Few will forget the scene at No. 16 last Sunday, an excited Kuchar reaching into the gallery, grabbing a hat off a patron’s head and tossing it for joy.
After he picked the ball from the cup, Kuchar signed it and handed the prize to a 10-year-old boy from Florida wearing a Sam Snead-style hat.
The texts and emails haven’t stopped for Kuchar, congratulating him on his Master’s finish and loving his celebration for the ace.
”It’s really been a lot of fun,” Kuchar said. ”I’ll be happy for it to keep going.”