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The Ride Of His Life The good times keep rolling for Matt Kuchar, the amateur who dazzled everyone at the Masters

May 11, 1998
May 11, 1998

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May 11, 1998

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The Ride Of His Life The good times keep rolling for Matt Kuchar, the amateur who dazzled everyone at the Masters

The man just couldn't help himself. It was another perfect
summer night at Camp Wulamat in central New Hampshire, where he
had been coming with his family for more than 40 years. The sun
was setting behind the mountains surrounding Newfound Lake, its
water as clear as glass. Everyone looked so handsome and happy
sitting around that picnic table under the trees that...well,
you can't blame a grandfather for getting caught up in such a
moment.

This is an article from the May 11, 1998 issue

So Maurice Kuchar, the man they call Big Kooch, raised his cup
and gave a toast. He talked about the fabulous day they had just
enjoyed, golfing and pitching horseshoes and foraging for
blueberries. He spoke of the joy he felt during this annual
pilgrimage, and how much he looked forward to many happy
returns. As he wound down his speech, he glanced down at his
grandson. That's when Big Kooch took a puff on his pipe dream.
"Here's to Matt at the Masters," he said.

Matt, who had just turned 19, had already shown much promise as
a golfer, becoming a third-team All-America during his freshman
year at Georgia Tech. So it was certainly within reason to
suggest that a trip to the Masters was in his future. But even
Big Kooch couldn't have dreamed at that moment that his prophecy
would come to pass before the family's next trip to Camp
Wulamat. Nor could he have imagined that Matt not only would
play at the Masters the following April--he earned an invitation
by winning the U.S. Amateur last August--but also, with an
even-par 288, would finish with the fifth-best score by an
amateur in the 62-year history of the tournament. Or that Matt
would become an overnight sensation by exhibiting such a boyish
joie de vivre as he played that fans would remember him as much
for his engaging smile as for the prodigious gifts that might
make him a star.

That is, unless his back gives out first. It could happen given
the way the world keeps pounding on it. When Kuchar walked into
the Augusta National clubhouse for the champions' dinner on the
Sunday night of the Masters, the members gave him a standing
ovation. When he sat down in his management class at eight
o'clock the next morning, the teacher called for a round of
applause. He signed autographs at a North Carolina gas station
in the middle of nowhere while en route to the ACC championships
the weekend after the Masters (Kuchar finished third, Tech
second). Ely Callaway, founder of the golf company that bears
his name, wants to have lunch with him. An anonymous young
female letter writer wants to "get to know the man behind the
smile." As Tom Cushman put it in the San Diego Union-Tribune,
Kuchar is "so all-American it's a wonder people don't hum The
Star-Spangled Banner when he passes."

Kuchar can certainly expect more accolades this week, when he
plays in his first PGA Tour event since Augusta, the BellSouth
Classic in Duluth, Ga., 20 miles from the Georgia Tech campus.
He has no qualms about being the life of the fairway. "I always
wanted to be like Arnold Palmer," Kuchar says. "He's such a
people person, great with signing autographs, great with the
media. I always wanted to be a person who people enjoyed
watching like that." Says his mother, Meg, "What he's doing is
truly acknowledging the crowd. People are so hungry for that."

Athletically speaking, the only real problem Kuchar has had to
this point is figuring out which sport to dominate. Growing up
in Lake Mary, Fla., 40 minutes north of Orlando, Kuchar played
in a youth soccer league with older boys. He was the best player
on the team. By the time he was 10, he was a state-ranked tennis
player in the 12-and-under age group. He can dunk a basketball
(he's 6'4"), run a pool table and bowl a 200 game. Also, says
his father, Peter, a 48-year-old insurance salesman, "I'll bet
you don't know two people who can beat him at Ping-Pong."

Matt's passion for--and success at--athletics can be traced to
that grand old toastmaster, Big Kooch. Maurice was an all-state
football player in Manchester, N.H., and the center on one of
the few undefeated teams in the history of the University of New
Hampshire.

His son Peter tried lots of sports, but his best was tennis. He
was the captain of the varsity at Stetson, and 10 years ago his
doubles team was ranked No. 1 in Florida in the 35-and-over age
group.

Peter is more famous these days for being the guy who carried
Matt Kuchar's bag at the Masters. Peter was very much the
hands-on sports dad while Matt was growing up, coaching his
son's soccer teams and taking him on road trips to Fenway Park
and the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Their battles at
table tennis are so intense that they usually walk away from the
table drenched in sweat. "That's what I wanted when I had a son,
someone to read the sports page with in the morning," Peter
says. "He just followed me around." When Peter decided to take
up golf in earnest in 1989, Matt was happy to tag along.

Matt was 10 1/2 when he played his first round and remembers
that his score was "right around 100." He was breaking 80
regularly by the time he was 14 and shot 69 in a junior
tournament at 15. He made the high school varsity as a
seventh-grader and won the conference championship the following
year. "He took to the game immediately," Peter says. "People
would walk by him on the range and say, 'Wow, what a swing.' He
was a natural."

Meg was in charge of making sure her son comported himself like
a gentleman, and she brooked no transgressions. A loudly uttered
profanity would cost Matt his driving privileges for a few days.
"I needed that car, so I learned real fast," he says. To this
day, Kuchar will yell out corn bread or cheese and crackers
after an errant shot instead of one of the seven words you can't
say on television. Hokey, perhaps, but at least he gets to drive
himself home.

The most startling aspect of Kuchar's success is how little
professional instruction he has had along the way. He played the
game for a year before he took his first lesson and, outside of
attending an occasional clinic, is a self-made player. "I feel
like I'm better off without a swing coach," he says. "I feel
like I know my game. If something goes wrong, I have more
confidence in myself than in someone else correcting my game."

The result is a swing so good that even Kuchar doesn't grasp all
its subtleties. For instance, he initiates his downswing with a
dynamic turn of his hips, which is especially pronounced because
of his height. The move is the source of his considerable power
(Kuchar averaged 266.75 yards off the tee in the Masters), but
he has never worked on developing his turn and never knew how
quickly he did it until he watched a replay of the U.S. Amateur.

Kuchar likes to emulate other players and isn't afraid to tinker
with his game. When he was struggling with his putter early last
summer, he tried standing farther from the ball, as Justin
Leonard does. It felt good, and Kuchar has putted that way ever
since--including at Augusta, where he three-putted only once.

Kuchar has gained another advantage from learning by feel:
distance control, which may be the best facet of his game and
the biggest reason he excelled at Augusta, where a premium is
placed on ball placement. "I'd tell him to hit it 165 and he'd
hit it 165," Peter says. That ability came in especially handy
during the first round, when 30-mph winds sent scores soaring.
After 14 holes Kuchar was two under and tied for the lead,
though he rinsed his approach at 15 and his tee shot at 16 and
eventually shot 72. ("How did he behave when he hit those two
balls in the water? Quite nicely," Meg says, beaming.) Kuchar's
68 in the third round was the lowest score by an amateur in the
Masters in 15 years. Before play began that morning, sports
psychologist Bob Rotella said to Davis Love III, who had opened
74-75, "You need to have as much fun out there as Matt."

It would be folly, however, to assume that all this comes easy
to Kuchar. He has worked hard to improve his game. His routine
includes hitting the weight room at 6 a.m. four times a week. He
weighs 190 pounds, 15 more than when he arrived in Atlanta, and
the added strength translates into extra distance on the golf
course. "When he came here, he was a phenomenal putter, but he
didn't hit it very far," says Wes Latimer, a redshirt freshman
on the Georgia Tech team. "Then he started getting longer and
hitting the ball solidly. Now he's out there throwing darts. He
hits everything around the flag and putts the eyes out of it,
and as you can see, he has a good time doing it."

Don't be fooled by that Opie Taylor smile, though. Kuchar also
has Bart Simpson's sense of humor. Kuchar never met a bed he
couldn't short-sheet. He has been known to tape up a shower head
or put Saran Wrap over a toilet bowl. (A clue: Often he will
unscrew the lightbulb so his unwitting prey is forced to conduct
business in the dark.) When northern Georgia was hit by a cold
spell in January, Kuchar sneaked into coach Bruce Heppler's
office every day for a week and turned down the thermostat.
Kuchar says his crowning achievement came last year when he
taped pictures of nude women inside a friend's chemistry
textbook. The friend discovered the pictures when he opened the
book in full view of two female softball players whom he was
tutoring. "We're going to get him," says Bryce Molder, a
freshman on the Georgia Tech team. "I don't know how, but we're
going to get him good."

Actually, it would be wise in many respects for Kuchar to watch
his back as he plows ahead. When he hits the tournament circuit
again this summer--a tour that will include the NCAA
championships later this month, the U.S. Open in June, the
British Open in July and the U.S. Amateur in August--he will
face high expectations. When he returns to Augusta next April,
courtesy of finishing in the top 24 this year (he was 21st),
Kuchar will no longer be a novelty. You're only young once, and
Kuchar's hitch as a greenhorn is about up.

"I believe he'll play regularly someday on the PGA Tour,"
Heppler says, "but will he always be a phenom? I don't know. He
has the skills, but a lot of people who have had skills haven't
made it. Golf is golf. Every day you have to start over."

True enough, but as the sun sets on the here and now, let's
savor the moment, enjoy the scenery and raise a glass. Here's to
Matt at the Masters.

COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE KUCHAR FAMILY BMOC After winning the U.S. Amateur last summer, Kuchar was named grand marshal of Georgia Tech's homecoming parade. [Matt Kuchar riding in vintage automobile in parade]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO TWOSOME Peter (left) got his wish: a son with whom he could share the sports pages. [Peter Kuchar caddying for Matt Kuchar]
"How did he behave when he hit those two balls in the water?
Quite nicely," Meg says.