IRVING -- The field for today's opening round of the HP Byron Nelson Championship has its share of players with major-championship credentials, headed by multiple major winners Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
But the highest-ranked golfer in the Nelson mix is Matt Kuchar, who climbed to No. 5 in the world rankings with Sunday's triumph at The Players Championship. Among Nelson competitors, Kuchar also has earned the most money this season: $2,927,799, which places him fourth on the season earnings list.
His recent success has placed Kuchar, 33, in closer proximity to the top of the world rankings than at any point in his professional career. Ideally, Kuchar hopes he is on a collision course with the No. 1 spot -- a concept he once considered difficult to grasp, let alone achieve.
"As far as the No. 1 spot, for a long time it seemed like Tiger Woods had a stronghold on the position and that No. 2 was the thing you had to play for," Kuchar said. "So it's exciting to have movement at that No. 1 spot, to have a shot at being the best. As a golfer, it's one of the things we all strive for. To be the best of the best, to actually be No. 1 in the world, would be an honor."
Kuchar can continue taking steps in that direction today at the Four Seasons Resort. He will be assisted by two Dallas-Fort Worth residents, caddie Lance Bennett and swing instructor Chris O'Connell.
To Kuchar, who also is on next week's commitment list at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, that makes the two-week trek through the DFW tour stops a semi-homecoming.
The Georgia Tech graduate, who lives in Sea Island, Ga., credits O'Connell with helping him retool his swing in 2006, triggering a move from the Nationwide Tour to the PGA Tour. He said Bennett helps him maintain the proper mental approach on the course.
"We have so much time between shots that it's easy for a player's mind to wander," said Kuchar, a four-time tour winner and 1997 U.S. Amateur champion. "I can count on him to help me out in a scenario when I might not be thinking clearly. But I can also count on him to distract me when I don't need to worry about an upcoming shot ... He's done a good job of understanding that, for me, it's great to have some distraction."
O'Connell, said Kuchar, brought consistency to his game by eliminating the need for timing in his golf swing.
"Basically, it shocked me at first... that he wanted to take some of my athleticism out of the swing," Kuchar said. "But there's no chance I would be in this position without finding Chris O'Connell. He's made me a better player."
Kuchar has not missed a cut in a tour event this season. In his last seven starts, he's had five top-10 finishes, capped by Sunday's victory at The Players. Kuchar's 13-under-par effort caught the attention of Mickelson, a four-time major champion who is 10th in the world golf rankings.
"It's certainly a big confidence booster, to be able to perform at the highest level on a golf course that is so penalizing," Mickelson said. "That gives you confidence heading into the more challenging events like the majors."
Kuchar still seeks his first career title in one of those. But he's making strides and Keegan Bradley, the defending Nelson champ, identified Kuchar as a guy with the mental strength to emerge as a leader board presence the week after winning.
Bradley, 25, found that challenge impossible last year, missing the cut at the Memorial Tournament a week after winning the Nelson.
"I was wasted at that tournament," Bradley said of his Memorial experience. "I couldn't sleep, I was so excited... I couldn't stop talking to people about winning and, finally, I missed the cut. But for 'Kuch,' he's a veteran. He's won a bunch of times. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he contends this week."
If he does, Kuchar could continue closing in on the top spot in the world rankings, which has been passed back and forth between three Europeans -- Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood -- for much of the past two seasons. He clearly likes his position.
"I'm very pleased at the path my golf game has followed. I wouldn't want to be the guy that wins once or twice a year and misses 10 or 12 cuts," said Kuchar, who pointed to Steve Stricker -- another late bloomer ranked among the world's top 10 players -- as a role model. "I always wanted to be the guy that was there, ready to bust out with a win and had a lot of chances during the year."
Kuchar's next chance comes this week at the Nelson.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760