Matt Kuchar employed the same apple-cheeked smile and gliding
gait at the U.S. Open that so captivated the gallery at April's
Masters, in which he finished 21st without ever threatening the
leaders. But the Georgia Tech junior proved at the Olympic Club
that behind his golly-gee exterior lies--pardon the
expression--the eye of a tiger.
While the Lake Course spit in the eye of the real Tiger as well
as those of most of the game's greats, Kuchar made pars,
followed double bogeys with birdies and for nearly three rounds
contended for the lead. With a score of nine-over-par 289,
Kuchar celebrated his 20th birthday on Sunday by coming in 14th,
the best finish by an amateur in an Open in 27 years. It would
be accurate, chronologically and otherwise, to say that he began
the Open a boy and finished it a man.
Kuchar was proud that he had earned an exemption for next year's
Open by finishing in the top 15, but he wanted more. "I wanted
to see how high I could finish," he said. "I wanted to see my
name on the leader board."
There are two definitions of amateurism. The one preferred in
golf is embodied by the sainted Bobby Jones, who became the
greatest golfer of his time. Kuchar laid claim to that legacy
with his play at Olympic. As the reigning U.S. Amateur champion,
Kuchar played the first two rounds with the winners of the last
Open, Ernie Els, and British Open, Justin Leonard. Kuchar
finished ahead of them both. Midway through the second round,
Els turned to Kuchar and teased, "After this week you might as
well turn pro. You might have that 5-year exemption." Els was
referring to the perk that the PGA Tour gives to Open champions.
With rounds of 70 and 69, Kuchar stood tied for fourth through
June 28, 1998
The other definition of amateurism is of a job not performed to
professional standards, which is how some players and officials
described the antics of Peter Kuchar, Matt's father and caddie,
in that order. It is the belief of most Tour pros that caddies,
like children, should be seen but nor heard. Peter wore the bag
on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve. When Matt holed out
for birdie from the greenside rough at the par-3 15th hole on
Friday, Peter bounded into the air, high-fived his son and then
did an impromptu dance. "Put yourself in my shoes," says Peter,
48, an insurance agent in the Orlando area. "Your son just
chipped in for birdie. What are you going to do? Stand there and
pretend you're at a funeral?"
The Lake Course was so exacting and the pressure so suffocating
that cheers were as rare as a level stance. Usually pars don't
attract cheers. All of which made the reception for Matt and
Peter more noticeable. They appealed to every member of the
gallery. Mothers called to Matt. Daughters called for him. The
beer-and-cigar crowd yelled Koooooch. The entire Bay Area fell
for him and his dad. "We were driving down the highway," says
Meg Kuchar, the mother and wife, "and people came alongside us
and yelled, 'Go Matt! Mr. Kuchar, don't change a thing!'" The
rest of the nation was also infatuated. NBC devoted more air
time to Peter and Matt than any father and son since Marty and
Frazier Crane. The Tonight Show left Matt a message in the
locker room. "Hey, Larry, I got invited to that late-night TV
show," Matt said to his hometown newspaper columnist, Larry
Guest of The Orlando Sentinel.
"Which one? Letterman?" Guest said.
"No, the other one," Matt said. "Whatsisname."
Only the Tour pros failed to be swept up in the enthusiasm,
especially where Peter was concerned. On Friday, at the same
hole on which Matt chipped in for birdie, Leonard four-putted
for a double bogey. He bogeyed the next two holes, and by the
time the threesome had reached the 18th green, Leonard was in no
mood for high jinks. After Kuchar putted out for his 69, Leonard
was lining up his putt when he was distracted by the movements
of Peter. Leonard glared at him, shook his head in disapproval
and resumed his work.
After his round, a 75, Leonard responded to an inquiry about the
incident by saying, "Next question." A few moments later he
turned to the reporter who had asked him about Kuchar's father
and said, "It does me no good to answer that question. You
Leonard carried no grudge--he later stopped by the Kuchars'
table in the players' dining room and wished Peter luck for the
rest of the weekend--but didn't change his views on Peter's
deportment. Leonard and the other pros see the course as their
office. The elder Kuchar had come in and gyrated on their desks.
The USGA, caught in the middle, tried to appease one and all.
One official asked Peter on Saturday morning to be "aware and
respectful" of the competitors but didn't reprimand him. USGA
observer Win Padgett officiated Kuchar's group every round but
Friday's and said, "I don't think there was anything untoward.
We saw stuff you wouldn't see from Tour caddies, but it wasn't
out of line. In a situation like that--a major championship, a
young man and his dad--I would hope that most of the players and
other caddies and officials would be willing to cut him a little
The good-natured Els did. "Matt is very calm," he said after
Friday's round. "His father is from the other side of the coin.
Matt must get it from his mother."
Els is right. Meg has a soothing tone to her voice, which masks
a delightfully droll sense of humor. Of her daughter, Becky, 18,
she says, "We thought about naming her Megan, but that would
have made me Big Meg. I didn't want to go there." She has made
it her mission to keep her son grounded. "Even in the birthday
card I gave him this morning," she said on Sunday, "I wrote that
I want that little boy to stay with him forever. That's an
important part of the equation."
When Matt and Peter arrived in the locker room that day, a
birthday cake prepared by the club was there waiting for them.
The gallery serenaded Matt with Happy Birthday on at least three
holes. When he sent his birdie putt on the 72nd hole 18 feet
past the cup, a fan broke the silence by yelling, "Pick it up,
Matt! Happy birthday!" Instead, Kuchar drained the comebacker,
which kept him in the top 15. Since the top 24 at the Masters
also get a return invitation, Kuchar is one of only a handful of
golfers who already have qualified for the first two majors of
He did get one present, a framed lithograph of the 6th hole at
Augusta from Mom and Dad. "He had two birdies there," Peter
said. The Masters traces its lineage to Jones, so the Augusta
National members profess to have a special place in their hearts
for amateurs. Yet in recent years the tournament has forgotten
its roots. Once the entire Walker Cup team was invited to play,
as well as the U.S. Amateur semifinalists. Now the list of
amateurs invited is down to four: the two Amateur finalists as
well as the U.S. Mid-Amateur and the British Amateur champs. The
U.S. Open, on the other hand, remains open to anyone who can
qualify. Over the last three decades the Open has been the scene
of more impressive performances by amateurs than has the Masters.
Kuchar's finish is the best by an amateur in the Open since Jim
Simons tied for fifth and Lanny Wadkins placed 13th in 1971 at
Merion. Merely making the cut is a great accomplishment for an
amateur. In the 1990s the list of those who have done so
includes Leonard, David Duval, Phil Mickelson (twice) and Tiger
Woods. Kuchar also remained in contention longer than some other
amateurs who found themselves on the leader board. Bobby
Clampett, for example, stood tied for fifth after 36 holes in
the '78 Open at Cherry Hills in Denver, then shot 80 on
Saturday. In 1976 Mike Reid opened with a 67 at the Atlanta
Athletic Club, Jones's home course, and led by three. He
followed with rounds of 81 and 80.
On Saturday, Kuchar had moved to second place, only four shots
behind leader Payne Stewart, after eight holes. The tide turned
with a three-putt bogey on 14. Kuchar made three more bogeys
coming home and finished with a 76, which left him eight strokes
behind Stewart. Kuchar followed with a respectable 74 on Sunday.
"I don't know Matt, but I think I know what he's feeling," said
Reid, who came in 49th at Olympic. "You don't really grasp it
for years. When I finally got out on Tour and got a taste of pro
golf on a week-in, week-out basis, I realized that at least for
one day, what I had done was pretty special."
Kuchar would have made about $50,000 had he played the Open as a
pro. He says he plans to discuss that option soon with his
father. Peter, like any good caddie, says Matt will make the
final decision, although he doesn't like the idea. "The theory
is that you can get your education anytime," Peter says. "You
can only get a college education and be 19 once."
There will come a time when Matt Kuchar loses his innocence,
when the smile won't be automatic and he will fail to
acknowledge the crowd's applause. But it was with no small pride
last week that Meg Kuchar repeated something that she had read.
During the Masters, Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist,
suggested that his client, Davis Love III, comport himself more
like Kuchar. Love won two of his next three starts.
"We saw stuff you wouldn't see from Tour caddies, but it wasn't
out of line," said a USGA official.