O’Connell: Hot Driver Behind Kuchar’s Torrid Start

Get info on Matt Kuchar's swing and practice philosophies

On his way to Las Vegas for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open early last November, Matt Kuchar made a crucial pit stop in Dallas to see his swing coach, GOLF Academy lead coach Chris O’Connell. The Shriners would be Kuchar’s first start in the wraparound 2019 PGA Tour season, and his first action on Tour in nearly two months after he failed to qualify for the BMW Championship—the third leg of the FedExCup Playoffs—for the first time since 2008.

Overall, 2018 was a very disappointing season for Kuchar, 40. The 2012 Players champion posted just four top-10 finishes in 24 PGA Tour starts and missed his first Ryder Cup for the Americans since 2008. He even failed to generate much consideration as a captain’s pick.

“Last year, he had a poor year driving the ball,” said O’Connell, “and he’s average length, so he needs be accurate.”

Thus it was a very motivated Kuchar who met with O’Connell for two days in Dallas, determined not to let 2018 be a harbinger of things to come.

Mission accomplished. Last Sunday, Kuchar joined Xander Schauffele as the only two-time winners on Tour this season, capturing the Sony Open in Hawaii for his ninth career PGA Tour title. It was Kuchar’s second victory in three official Tour starts, having won the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico a little more than a week after visiting with O’Connell. That victory snapped a 4-1/2-year winless drought on Tour and also signaled that Kuchar was back in control of his driver again. At Mayakoba, Kuchar was third in the field in Driving Accuracy (80.4%) and tied for ninth in Greens in Regulation (79.2%); at the Sony, he tied for fourth in Driving Accuracy (71.4%) despite the blustery conditions, and was also third in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green and No. 1 in GIR (83.3%).

“We had a really good two days in Dallas,” said O’Connell, who’s been Kuchar’s swing coach since 2006. “He hit the ball really well tee to green in Vegas, and on his way to Mayakoba I could tell he was really excited about how he was hitting it again. He felt he really had control of his ball.”

O’Connell made two key changes to Kuchar’s swing in Dallas: 1) getting his arms to swing wider and his body to pivot more on the backswing; and 2) making his delivery less timing oriented so that he could close the clubface as hard as he wants through impact without hitting the ball left.

Kuchar’s backswing had gotten too short, a result of him pulling his arms in too close to his body. So while the plane of his swing still looked pretty good, he had very little width or turn. This put Kuchar in too narrow and steep a hitting position at the top of the backswing, forcing him to shallow out the club and drop down underneath the plane, from in to out. The fix was to get Kuchar’s arms—in particular, his right, trail arm—to swing straighter back, parallel to his target line and away from his right side. This allowed him to pivot more naturally so that the arms would eventually move inside as a result of his turn, and not his pulling them in.

To fix Kuchar’s release, they worked on getting Matt’s club in a more laid-off position at the top of the backswing (i.e., pointing well left of the target line), so that he could close the clubface harder on the downswing and send the path of the club more around his body to the left, producing a slight fade, or left-to-right tee shot. When Kuchar is at his best off the tee and controlling the ball, it’s when he’s hitting a baby cut.

“We all have our hot buttons and for most Tour players, including Matt, the hot button is the ball going left,” said O’Connell, who also teaches PGA Tour winner Hunter Mahan and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned CBS color analyst Tony Romo. “If Matt’s missing to the right, that doesn’t bother him, because then he feels like he can just close it harder. But when he misses left, then he doesn’t want to close it at all.”

Closing the clubface through impact to produce a fade might seem contradictory to most amateurs, says O’Connell, but it’s the difference between hitting a weak fade (or slice) and a more controlled, powerful fade.

“I want the face to be pretty square, maybe even slightly closed to the target,” said O’Connell. “I’m trying to get Matt to get the path of the clubhead to the left of his clubface, and that produces a released fade. Too many people think a fade is weak because all they do is hold the face open and turn their 6-iron into an 8-iron. The more Matt gets the path left of the face, the more the ball won’t go left.”