When Matt Kuchar dropped in a gimmie putt to win The Players Championship–by far his biggest title in twelve years on the PGA Tour–his two sons ran onto the green to hug him. Kuchar scooped up one of his boys and shook the hand of playing partner Kevin Na, apologizing for grabbing his son before getting a chance to formally complete the round.
Amidst the greatest moment of his professional career, with his son dangling from his arm, Kuchar made sure to not upstage Na. More than victories, it's those small gestures that have made Kuchar such a likeable player on tour.
You cannot dislike Kuchar. As golf fans, it feels good to root for one of the nice guys.
Always smiling on the course, Kuchar showed off the biggest grin of his career after two-putting on the 18th green at Sawgrass, hugging his boys, kissing his wife and explaining what it meant to win this title on Mothers Day.
During his post tournament press conference, Kuchar was asked about his trademark smile.
"I love playing the game of golf. I have fun doing it. I am a golf junkie. I have to force myself to take vacations where I cannot play golf, where the clubs don't make it. The game is always so challenging, and I think that challenge is addictive to me.
"I feel like I am so lucky to be doing what I do. I'm out there, enjoying myself, having a good time. The smile is there because I'm having a good time, because I am loving playing golf."
It certainly shows.
It wasn't just Kuchar who was smiling after he won the Players. Galleries were chanting his name all weekend, a scene that has become rather commonplace at each tournament stop. He has always been likeable, but now Kuchar is becoming more and more a fan favorite, especially during golf's Southern swing.
Who says nice guys don't finish first? This year a lot of them have.
Kuchar continues a run of good players who also seem to be good guys winning the big tournaments. Nobody was easier to root for than Bubba Watson as he took home the green jacket at Augusta. In golf's unofficial fifth major, the next huge tournament on the calendar, Kuchar took home golf's richest prize. It sure was easy to root for both of them.
Is rooting for the good guy a change in philosophy, or are we really only rooting for them because they are winning? Fans have a tendency to gravitate toward those who win. Are we happier for them because they seem nice?
Tiger Woods has the deepest galleries in all of golf because people like to be around excellence. While it takes nothing away from Woods' career accomplishments, it hasn't been lost on golf fans that he has always been distant from the crowds. Tiger seems to tolerate the galleries while other players have embraced them.
Phil Mickelson has been an easy champion to root for because–whether genuine or not–he seems to enjoy performing in front of the crowds. People have long suggested Mickelson is a bit of a phony, but it's hard to be a phony giving as many high-fives as Lefty has. If he's faking his appreciation for the fans, he does an amazing job at it.
The bottom line, with Mickelson or Watson or Kuchar or any of the other "good guys" on Tour who have won this year, is that it's fun to root for guys who look like they are having fun.
It's that simple. We want the smiling guys to win. We want the accessible players to succeed. We want the likeable guys to be atop the major leaderboards because nobody wants to back the bad guy.
There is an unwritten rule in golf that you never cheer for any player to fail, which makes it that much more important to root for the good guys, like Kuchar, to succeed.
The final round on Sunday wasn't easy for Kuchar, but his demeanor never wavered. Playing with Na who is battling demons that often preclude him from hitting the ball–he freezes up over the ball and physically cannot swing the club–Kuchar seemed unfazed. Talking to reporters, he gave credit to his family and former teammates for helping him see the game in a more relaxed way.
"I feel like my mental game is one of my stronger suits. I feel like not a whole lot gets under my skin. I'm good about letting things roll off and not affect me. I had a great up-bringing with a father that pushed me, that challenged me…you had to have thick skin, you had to be able to handle anything thrown your way.
"I had a mother, as well, that made sure that I also enjoyed the game. I found that the more fun I had on the golf course, the better I played. For me, playing with a guy who may be a distraction, it's not going to bother me."
Nothing bothered Kuchar all weekend. He stayed composed after hitting a ball in the water on 17. He was not thrown off by Na's struggles or the throngs of fans or the late charge of Rickie Fowler, another likeable guy with a win this season.
The whole time, Kuchar had that trademark smile, taking it all in and bringing home his biggest victory. Everyone can smile about that.
(Note: If you listen to the audio of the attached podcast, we discuss the Players, but also cover the epic finish to the EPL season, the contract situations for Josh Hamilton and Cole Hamels and the connection between sports and Mothers Day.)