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Kuchar in the money at TPC; Clutch birdie on 16 leads to rich triumph

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Matt Kuchar looked beyond the edge of the 16th green at a scene packed with enough stress it could wipe away even his smile.

Across the water was an island green that was awaiting him Sunday in The Players Championship. The guy dressed all in orange and pumping his first was Rickie Fowler after making a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th to cut Kuchar's lead to two shots.

Kuchar stepped over his 15-footer and answered with a birdie just as big.

"Yeah, absolutely I saw the putt," Kuchar said. "Watched the thing disappear and he gave a big fist pump. I knew it got him to within two shots and he could birdie 18 to bring it within one. That could have changed the whole scenario of how I would have approached and played 18. So I was really excited to drop that birdie on 16. That was big."

Everything was big for Kuchar on the TPC Sawgrass -- most of all, that smile.

After a three-putt bogey he could afford on the 17th, and a tap-in par on the final hole with his family watching, Kuchar closed with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot victory, his fourth career win and by far the biggest in so many ways.

It was his first win in 38 starts on the PGA Tour, dating to The Barclays in 2010. He won $1.71 million, the richest prize in golf, and moved to No. 3 in the Ryder Cup standings and a career-high No. 5 in the world ranking. His parents moved to Ponte Vedra Beach, so he stayed with them all week and delivered the perfect gift on Mother's Day to the woman who taught him to have fun while playing golf.

Even at scary Sawgrass, that was never a problem.

Not so for Kevin Na.

Already struggling with a pre-shot routine of practice swings, waggles and a few intentional whiffs so he could start over, Na heard it from the fans who heckled him with chants of "Pull the trigger!" and "Hit it!" He lost the lead for good with four bogeys in a five-hole stretch to finish the front nine, and when he hit his tee shot in the water on the par-3 13th, fans serenaded him with, "Na-na-na-na good-bye."

He closed with a 76, keeping a peculiar record intact -- since The Players moved from March to May in 2007, the 54-hole leader has not shot better than 74 in the final round, with an average score of 76.3.

"I backed off and they're booing me," Na said. "I said, 'Look, guys, I backed off because of you guys.' But it is what it is. I also felt that a lot of people were turning toward me and pulling for me, which I really appreciate."

Fowler missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the last hole -- the difference of $399,000 -- and shot 70 to settle for a four-way tie for second. He was joined by Ben Curtis, Zach Johnson, and Martin Laird.

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