PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — A clear mind for a golfer is like having a 15th club in the bag. A mind cluttered with distractions can be disastrous.
A year removed from one of the most difficult weeks of his career, Matt Kuchar’s existence this week at the Genesis Invitational is all about golf and no outside controversies … and he wore it well Thursday, storming to an opening-round 7-under 64 and the tournament lead.
Kuchar will take a three-shot advantage over K.H. Lee, Russell Henley, Wyndham Clark and Adam Schenk, all of whom shot 4-under 67 going into Friday’s second round. Several players, including Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Bryson DeChambeau, are four shots back after shooting respective 68s.
Tiger Woods, the tournament host, is five back at 2-under after shooting what was a disappointing 69 considering he eagled his first hole, was 3-under through six holes and 4-under through eight. Woods leaked away a stroke on his final hole, the 18th, with a bogey — the result of a sliced tee shot into the right rough that forced him to pitch out onto the fairway.
“I got off to a nice start on the front nine and just didn’t hit many good shots on the back nine,’’ Woods said. “I haven’t had a whole lot of time to practice this week, I’ve been a little bit busy [as the event host]. First time I saw the range was [Wednesday] and that was for about 10 minutes warming up for the pro-am.’’
As for Kuchar, a year ago at this tournament, his public life was unraveling. With inexplicably zero help from his manager, Mark Steinberg, Kuchar was mired in a public relations disaster that was shattering his good-guy image.
He had spent the previous month putting his foot in his mouth while making excuses for paying his temporary Mexican club caddie a $5,000 tip at the Mayakoba Classic in November 2018 after winning the event and pocketing $1.3 million.
By the time he got to Riviera, the public heat had ratcheted up to such an uncomfortable temperature that Kuchar finally came to his senses and issued a statement apologizing to David “El Tucan’’ Ortiz and promising to pay him $50,000.
Being exposed as cheap, coupled with an ill-advised comment about Ortiz (“For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week.”) led to Kuchar being excoriated by media and ridiculed by fans.
Genesis week became the breaking point as he issued a statement that read, in part: “This week, I made comments that were out of touch and insensitive, making a bad situation worse,’’ promising to pay Ortiz $50,000.
And that wasn’t the only incident that tainted Kuchar’s 2019, which included two wins and more than $6 million in earnings.
His year also was marred by a dustup with Sergio Garcia in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where Garcia was angered about not being given a short putt, as well as a questionable free drop from a divot he requested at the Memorial and a controversial improving of a lie in the sand at the European Open, where he moved a loose impediment behind his ball.
These were all forgettable moments in an otherwise spectacular year.
They all are incidents Kuchar hopes are in the rearview mirror forever as he tries to win at Riviera this week.
“It was a fun, fun day out there,’’ Kuchar said after his round Thursday. “It’s a place that I absolutely love coming every year.’’
Kuchar’s round was highlighted by four-of-four on scramble saves to keep his seven-birdie, bogey-free round intact.
“To shoot a number like this, you kind of do most things well,’’ he said. “I didn’t find myself in much trouble.’’
Unlike a year ago at Riviera, where he finished tied for 28th while dodging distractions.
“I got wind of [the criticism] and it was not fun,’’ Kuchar said recently at Kapalua. “I try to do my best to be a guy who treats people the way they want to be treated. … I’ve been fortunate in my career that I have not had to deal with any issues, so that  was certainly a difficult time.’’
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