In case you missed it, Matt Kuchar made his pro debut on the PGA
Tour last week--2 1/2 years too late and minus millions of
dollars in endorsement money. He received not a second of TV
time and attracted virtually no interest from the reporters or
the fans at the Sony Open. He didn't have a logo on his shirt or
a courtesy car in his driveway. In other words everything went
according to plan. "I wouldn't have had it any other way,"
Kuchar said following an opening 71 at Waialae Country Club in
Honolulu. "There are no regrets. It has been a wonderful
experience just getting to this point."
That's the problem with Kuchar: His perspective is far too wide
for someone so young. Ever since he burst onto the scene at the
1998 Masters, a 19-year-old college sophomore with a boyish grin
and an outrageously mature game, the rest of us have been
obsessed with his destination while he has been thrilled with the
journey. Though he missed the cut by two strokes at the Sony,
which was won by Brad Faxon, Kuchar left town in typically high
spirits. "I learned what I need to work on with my swing," he
said, "and I got to experience Hawaii a little bit. It's a neat
That Kuchar took the time to stop and smell the orchids is
admirable, given his pressure-packed circumstances. Having
graduated last May after a mostly brilliant career at Georgia
Tech, Kuchar did a stint in the straight world before deciding to
turn pro last fall, by which point it was too late to go through
Save the crucible of Monday qualifying, Kuchar's only entree to
tournaments this season is through sponsors' exemptions, of
which he, as a nonmember of the Tour, is restricted to seven.
(He's down to six after accepting Sony's invite.) If, in those
precious few starts, Kuchar makes $247,037, the equivalent of
150th on last year's money list, he can apply for special
temporary membership to the Tour, which would allow him to
accept an unlimited number of sponsors' exemptions and,
theoretically, play a decent number of events.
It is a brutal scenario, made all the more challenging by a
maddening uncertainty: Kuchar has no idea which tournaments he
will get into. Pebble Beach looks promising, and the Bay Hill
Invitational, near his hometown of Lake Mary, Fla., is a
possibility, but beyond that his schedule is pure guesswork.
"This isn't an easy route, but neither is Q school," Kuchar
says. "There are no free passes to get on Tour. Honestly, I'm
not too worried about it. If things don't work out in seven,
there's always the Buy.com tour or Europe or even the
Australasian tour. Lots of possibilities."
It is tempting to dismiss Kuchar's optimism as the ignorance of
youth. In fact his attitude is based on just the opposite. He has
been through so much during his short career that he has been
left with the unshakable belief that, in golf, anything is
Kuchar's wild ride began with a victory at the '97 U.S. Amateur,
the first of the post-Tiger Woods era. That triumph earned him an
invitation to the '98 Masters, and it was there that this Opie
Taylor in spikes captivated the nation. Tied for the lead through
14 holes of the first round, Kuchar went on to shoot an even-par
288, a score bettered by only four other amateurs in the
tournament's history. Two months later, at the U.S. Open, rounds
of 70 and 69 put him in a tie for fourth place, and by eight
holes into the third round he had moved up to solo second. Kuchar
would finish 14th, the best showing by an amateur at the national
championship since 1971, when Jim Simons tied for fifth and Lanny
Wadkins came in 13th.
With his telegenic looks and seemingly unlimited potential,
Kuchar was an advertiser's dream. In the wake of the Open one
widely quoted estimate put his endorsement value at $2 million a
year, and with so much at stake, a feeding frenzy ensued among
agents, manufacturers and assorted others desperate to pitch woo
to Kooch. "There was some pretty weird stuff going on back then,"
says Peter Kuchar, Matt's father. "One guy from Iowa called
claiming to own a million chickens. He wanted to pay Matt like
$50,000 to come out to the farm for the day and play golf with
some of his clients."
It's no wonder Matt fled back to Tech in the fall of '98, for
what was supposed to be, as he calls it, "a little grace period."
The plan was for Kuchar to spend a quarter on campus
decompressing and then announce he was turning pro in a splashy
ceremony at the PGA Merchandise Show in January 1999. But a funny
thing happened on the way to the bank: Back at school Kuchar was
having the time of his life just being a kid again. He was the
leader of one of the top-ranked teams in the country, a
remarkably cohesive bunch that studied together, partied together
and often convened for late-night hoops games on the floor of
Georgia Tech's basketball arena, which Kuchar had access to
thanks to his roommate, Matt Judy, who was the manager for the
Yellow Jackets' basketball team.
Kuchar had joined Judy that fall in an old three-bedroom house on
Lynch Avenue, in downtown Atlanta. Unfortunately, Judy already
had two other roommates, which left only the dining room for
Kuchar. He gamely hung shelves to hold his clothes, taped
curtains over the French doors for privacy and settled into this
quintessential college crash pad. With a big porch and a front
door that was never locked, the house on Lynch Avenue quickly
became party central. "A typical bash," says Judy, "was half the
basketball team, all the golfers, a bunch of football players,
some frat guys and many, many sorority girls."
By the end of the fall golf schedule Kuchar pulled the plug on
the plan to turn pro. The money was tempting, to be sure, but in
the end Kuchar concluded that his college experience was
priceless. "I knew in my heart, if I gave up those years, I'd
spend the rest of my life regretting it," he says.
Once Kuchar decided not to leave school, he had to work hard to
stay in. Amid the whirlwind that followed his Amateur victory,
Kuchar had fallen behind in the pursuit of his business
management degree, and for the winter '99 quarter he sucked it
up and took 18 units, then 21 more in the spring. Kuchar's
on-course performance dipped considerably as a junior and
included a not-so-triumphant return to the Masters. By the time
he arrived in Augusta, he was run-down and suffering from the
flu. Nevertheless, he made the cut and finished 50th.
With his classroom workload significantly reduced as a senior,
Kuchar made first-team All-America and led Tech to within a
stroke of the national championship. ("Ooooh, that still kills
me," he says.) As he pondered life after graduation, Kuchar
became increasingly influenced by the example of another Georgia
Tech alum, Bobby Jones, the greatest golfing gentleman of them
all, proudly a lifelong amateur. (After winning the U.S.
Amateur, Kuchar had made a point of reenacting the triumphant
train ride into Atlanta that Jones had made 70 years earlier.)
Kuchar, having held a dual passport to the worlds of
professional and amateur golf, had come to savor the purity and
relaxed ambience of the latter. Last August, after much
soul-searching, he took a job as an analyst at an investment
banking firm in Boca Raton, Fla. For two months Kuchar put on a
suit and tie and went to the office, poring over annual reports
and occasionally playing client golf, hoping to keep sharp for
the amateur circuit.
In late September, fate--in the form of the Texas Open--intervened,
as Kuchar was offered a sponsor's exemption. He shot 72-74 and
missed the cut, yet was inspired by the performance. "I would
have liked nothing more than another shot the next week to redeem
myself," Kuchar says. "I wanted to play again, badly, and that
surprised me." In the aftermath of the Texas Open, Kuchar kept
spinning in his mind one bottom-line question: Will I ever reach
my potential playing amateur golf? He decided he owed it to
himself to test his mettle on the Tour.
This time it was Kuchar who was calling the agents. Again he
confounded traditional thinking, spurning the established golf
agencies in favor of the Wilhelmina Agency, a giant in the
modeling industry whose one-year-old sports division now
represents, among others, NBA star Stephon Marbury and figure
skating pinup queen Katarina Witt. Bobby Kreusler, executive vice
president and co-owner of Wilhelmina, is handling Kuchar's
affairs and foresees a rare crossover appeal. "Matt has the
potential to be not just a golfer but also a celebrity," says
Kreusler. "He's a good-looking kid with a ton of charisma."
To help separate the 6'4" Kuchar from the horde of other
golfers, Kreusler is planning to line up TV and film
appearances, and there is even talk of having Kuchar do runway
work during next month's Fashion Week in New York City. As for
the more traditional endorsements, Kuchar has a three-year ball,
glove, bag and hat deal with Precept, and this week he will sign
with a "men's fashion house that also does golf wear," as
Kreusler puts it. The combined annual value of the deals will be
around $500,000. Subtract that from his former value, and it
cost Kuchar about $1.5 million a year to complete his degree at
Georgia Tech, steep tuition even by today's standards. "I passed
up a lot of money, but that's not to say I'm not going to live
very comfortably," says Kuchar, the son of a life-insurance
salesman. "I'm still happy, and grateful, for what I have."
Kuchar has been putting some of this capital to use. He recently
joined, as a junior member, the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound,
Fla., the province of Greg Norman, Jesper Parnevik and Nick
Price. Kuchar is still looking for "a place to store my clothes,"
or what other people call a house. He has, at least, found a
swing coach, Rick Smith, known as the czar of the feel players
for his work with guys such as Lee Janzen and Phil Mickelson.
Smith has focused mainly on his pupil's posture and alignment.
Kuchar had been too hunched over, with a tendency to line up to
the left, forcing him to swing inside out. With a squarer setup
Kuchar is swinging more down the line, and his improved ball
striking was evident at the Sony Open, at least for a day. Kuchar
hit 14 greens in blustery conditions during the opening round,
but his putter uncharacteristically betrayed him, and he could
convert only one of those birdie putts. Last Friday, Kuchar's
iron play was erratic, but he got a lot of mileage out of his
airtight wedge game--on the front nine he hit only three greens
but still turned in 34. The magic ran out on the back nine, as he
made three bogeys to negate a birdie-birdie finish, shooting an
Says Tour veteran Craig Barlow, who was paired with Kuchar, "He's
an impressive player. He hits it long, putts well, chips well,
really doesn't have a weakness. It's a fine line between where he
is and where he needs to be. He just needs to be patient."
Patience is one of Kuchar's many virtues, and taking the long
road to the Tour has given him an even greater appreciation of
the journey. "Growing up," Kuchar says, "I'd see a player on TV
or in a big magazine spread and would think, Wow, that's the guy
I want to be. Then when I got there so quickly, it wasn't all
that glamorous. I realized playing golf is only part of the job.
I think it took me a while to accept that. You know what? I still
want to be the guy who has the lights on him."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK IN DEEP Kuchar, who missed the cut at Waialae (below), quit his banking job after taking stock of his future at the Texas Open.
"If things don't work out," says Kuchar, "there's always the
Buy.com tour or Europe or the Australasian tour. Lots of