PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — In the hyper-elite Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades, Matt Kuchar was seated in the clubhouse of the ultra-exclusive Riviera Country Club when he non-sarcastically defended paying his caddie 0.4% of a $1.3 million dollar paycheck.
Talk about irony.
In case you haven’t been keeping up with one of the spicier controversies in recent golf memory, a brief recap: Matt Kuchar used a local Mexican caddie, David “El Tucan” Ortiz, during his November win at the Mayakoba Classic. The win, Kuchar’s first in more than four years, brought him to over $45 million in career on-course earnings (not to speak of his surely lucrative agreements with Bridgestone, Workday, Skechers, etc.) Standard practice on Tour dictates that a caddie makes roughly 10% of a player's earnings, which would have netted El Tucan $130,000. Former journeyman Tour pro Tom Gillis started the fire when he tweeted that Kuchar paid El Tucan $3,000 for the week. Kuchar denied this when first asked about it: “It wasn’t 10%, it wasn’t $3,000. It’s not a story.”
That was the first indication that Kuchar truly has no idea how big a deal this has become, and how damaging the ordeal has been to his reputation. This is a story, indeed. The second, more flagrant indication of his situational ignorance came during a rainy Wednesday evening at Riviera.
Kuchar confirmed to Golf.com’s Michael Bamberger that he paid El Tucan $5,000 for the week. He also told Bamberger that it was his agent, not Kuchar himself, who offered El Tucan an additional $15,000 as a form of damage control.
This is the part where Kuchar—largely considered one of the “nice guys” on Tour, whatever that means—apologizes to anyone he offended, tries to minimize the PR damage and moves past it. Right?
Wrong. He doubled down.
“I kind of think someone got in his ear,” Kuchar said. “I was very clear and very upfront on Tuesday [of the tournament week]. And he said, ‘OK.’”
The most cringeworthy nugget:
“For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week,” he said.
Says the guy who made $1.3 million.
A few weeks ago, when this story came to light, I cautioned against publicly executing a guy based on a couple tweets. Back then, the stiffing was still a rumor. Neither Kuchar nor El Tucan had talked. Now, they both have. Now, we know what happened. It’s no longer conjecture or speculation.
Let’s be clear: of course, Matt Kuchar should have paid El Tucan more than $5,000. That is, simply put, an obscenely low figure considering how much money Kuchar has and how much that week could have changed El Tucan’s life. Caddies for elite professionals make a good living. But guys like El Tucan, who caddie at local clubs for amateurs, often live round-to-round, the caddying equivalent of paycheck-to-paycheck. El Tucan told Bamberger that $50,000 seemed fair—I’m not in the business of appraising tips, but I do know that $5,000 feels insulting.
Kuchar’s sheer tone deafness to this entire situation is just as shocking as the stiffing itself. Anyone with access to a search engine can gauge the public’s perception on this. I understand that, strictly speaking, Kuchar did not violate the terms of their agreement. His argument is rooted in the principle that an agreement is an agreement, and that no one should ever be vilified for honoring an agreement.
But that’s not life. Circumstances change and opportunities for good deeds present themselves, previous handshakes be damned. The extra $40,000 would have made a lot more of difference for El Tucan than Kuchar.
Golf already owns a (justified) reputation as an elitist pastime. New top-end drivers are as expensive as smartphones; memberships at elite private courses are starkly out of reach for nearly everybody; a dozen new Pro V1s will run you close to $50. The stereotype of a golfer depicts a rich white man who is woefully out of touch with the common folk. Kuchar played right into it, twice: the original sin and the interview that made it all worse.
He's unlikely to live this down. Gone is the spotless reputation, the status as an ideal ambassador for the game. Kuchar will be reminded of this ordeal by fans in every single tournament he plays for the rest of his career. It’s another example of how, in this day and age, skeletons are never buried in the closet. For better or for worse, nothing stays a secret. If you cross someone, it’s going to come to the light. All it takes is one tweet.
On the golf course, Kuchar has long been serenaded by affectionate calls of “Kooooch” from adoring fans. To an untrained ear, it sounds like booo. After this nightmare, the previously unmistakable line between Kooch and boo no longer exists.