Hitting A High Note The most unlikely headliners of '98 hope that the music never stops

December 21, 1998

It was a year of dramatic entrances in golf. Casey Martin came
to us courtesy of a black-robed judge, and sometimes the young
pro seemed like a character updated from Dickens--Tiny Tim with
a titanium driver. Then Matt Kuchar, the 20-year-old U.S.
Amateur champion, popped up at the Masters. Suddenly, golf
analysts were using the Telestrator to break down his appealing
smile, it being the first time that a Cheshire cat had contended
at Augusta.

Jenny Chuasiriporn was next. The Duke senior rolled in a 45-foot
birdie putt on the final hole of regulation at the U.S. Women's
Open, and the way she clapped a hand over her mouth in disbelief
reminded you of the time your sister aced the windmill hole at
Putt-Putt. Finally there was the English 17-year-old, Justin
Rose, who finished fourth in the British Open at Royal Birkdale.
Rose had mums wondering what he was doing out in the wind and
rain without a mackintosh.

Four young golfers. Four compelling stories. As is usually the
case when a hatchling becomes famous, though, each of this
year's prodigies has had to cope with a lot of unfamiliar fuss.
Should I sign this? Can I say that? Where would I rather be, at
a frat party or at a pro-am reception for bald men in cashmere
sweaters?

"Being the center of attention is a real challenge," says Martin,
savoring an almost-private lunch of chicken strips and sliced
fruit at the Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. "I used to be judgmental
of pro athletes and how they handled things, but now that I've
gotten a taste of the limelight, I'm not so quick to take that
stance."

In 1998 Casey Martin was more than a center of attention. He was
a vortex of controversy. By suing the PGA Tour for the right to
use a motorized cart in its tournaments, Martin--who suffers from
Klippel-Trenauney-Weber syndrome--had millions of Americans taking
sides over obscure provisions of the Americans with Disabilities
Act. When he wasn't trying to beat a hundred other pros on the
Nike tour, he was deflecting ideological jabs on Crossfire. "It
sent me spinning," Martin says. "There were times when my life
was an absolute circus."

The irony is that Martin found fame on the low-profile Nike tour,
the PGA Tour's developmental circuit. At every tour stop he was
stalked by reporters and cameramen, autograph seekers, advocates
for the disabled and the disabled themselves. He was in Tiger's
skin, so to speak, and uneasy with his conflicted feelings. "I
want to be different, I really do," says Martin. "I realize you
can put a smile on somebody's face just by giving a little bit of
yourself. But I sometimes struggled to do it."

Martin also found it difficult to deal with the emptiness of his
apartment in Foster City, Calif. This fall he moved back to
Eugene, the town where he grew up, buying a small house in a
gated community. Before Thanksgiving he shopped for furniture
with his mother, Melinda, who tried to get him excited about
sofas and lamps when all he cared about was his new baby grand
piano. "He said he could live without furniture," she says, "but
not without the piano." (Casey is an accomplished pianist,
having learned to sight-read on the family spinet.)

Martin sees that the good outweighed the bad in '98. He won a
Nike event and his court case. He finished 23rd at the U.S. Open,
proving that he could play with the world's best, and he ended
the year by winning more than $75,000 in the made-for-TV Skills
Challenge. Best of all, he played a full season of pro golf. "The
leg held up great," he says. "I didn't have nearly as much
discomfort, and that's strictly because of the cart."

On the other hand, the leg won't--can't--get better. As Martin
walked around the clubhouse after lunch, he limped noticeably on
his withered limb. "Today it's miserable," he said. "I'm really
hurting." It pained him as well that he didn't gain his PGA Tour
card for '99, either by cracking the top 15 on the Nike tour or
by passing the Q school finals. However he is still eligible to
play the Nike tour, thanks to his win in '98. "It's probably good
for me to be back on the Nike," he says. "The scrutiny should die
down, and I'll have the opportunity to improve my game."

Maybe. Maybe not. The Tour's appeal will be heard sometime in
'99. "Then," says his mother in a worried voice, "it'll start all
over again."

Matt Kuchar, sprawled in a chair in his family's Lake Mary, Fla.,
home, is also questioning the price of success. "Lately I've been
thinking about disguises, wigs," he says. "Becoming the Matt
Kuchar nobody knows."

Has he considered frowning? The patented grin spreads across
Kuchar's face, as reflexive as a sneeze. He is half a foot taller
than he looks on television, but no less amiable. "Don't get me
wrong," he says. "I enjoy the attention I get. It's fun, and you
never know how long it's going to last."

Change is on the mind of the Georgia Tech junior. His mother and
father have put the house up for sale, and Kuchar looks wistful
as he strolls under the moss-draped oaks with Hogan, his
14-month-old chocolate Labrador retriever.

Already he is congratulating himself for the move he didn't make
in '98--turning pro. "Sports seem to have taken a turn that
doesn't appeal to me," he says. "It's all money, money. People
aren't doing things for the right reasons."

Not that Kuchar didn't come within a whisker of selling out. His
success in the majors (even par over four rounds at the Masters
and a strong 14th at the U.S. Open) and his telegenic looks had
companies lining up with endorsement offers. "I talked to a
million agents and vendors," says Peter Kuchar, Matt's father,
caddie and counselor. "Matt couldn't be bought."

Cynics will say that the offers, from a slumping golf equipment
industry, simply weren't good enough. Kuchar, a business major,
says it was more a case of wanting to stay in school and needing
to work more on his game. "I've been fortunate to see how the
pros shoot low scores even on their off days," he says. "I need
to be able to shoot par no matter how I'm playing."

Kuchar's demeanor certainly needs little work. He comes off as
the neighbor boy looking for yard work, but actually he's a
relentless competitor. ("I think I've faked out a lot of people,"
he admits.) His play-with-a-smile approach combines his father's
aggressiveness with his mother Meg's insistence on good
sportsmanship.

The media seems ready to typecast Kuchar as the pro from
Pleasantville. "He's so approachable," his father marvels.
"Ten-year-olds go up to get Matt's autograph, and it's like
they're meeting Santa Claus."

Or Shaq. The day before Thanksgiving, Kuchar went up to dunk on
his driveway hoop and pulled down everything--rim, backboard and
pole. "I don't know how I did that," he says, staring at the
fallen apparatus. Like most of what he says, his words hide the
essence of Matt Kuchar. He is, beneath the genial surface, a
young man who absolutely knows his own strength.

For Jenny Chuasiriporn, the lure of the tour was resistible. Yes,
finishing second to Se Ri Pak in a playoff at the Women's Open
forced her to think about a pro career, but getting her
psychology degree from Duke came first. "The pro lifestyle would
not have made me happy," she says. "I would have wanted to be
with my friends at school."

Neither has she been thrown off balance by celebrity. "I'm the
same person I was before the Open," she says. What kind of person
is that? "Just a normal Joe Shmoe."

Make that an extraordinary Joe Shmoe. Since taking Pak an extra
20 holes in July, Chuasiriporn has finished runner-up to Grace
Park in the U.S. Amateur and led the U.S. to victory in the
World Amateur Team in Chile. In her spare time she attended
classes in cognitive psychology. "She's probably been away from
school more than any athlete in Duke history," says Duke's golf
coach, Dan Brooks. "But when she's here, she's buried in
academics."

Chuasiriporn's appeal is not unlike Kuchar's--both win fans with
their smiles and good manners--and it was surely kismet that they
went out dancing when both were in Santiago for the Worlds.
"She's amazing the way she takes everything with a smile," says
Kuchar, without a trace of irony. "In Chile she was one of the
social forces. She made a million friends and still won by seven
shots."

Rarely does maturity come in such a lighter-than-air package.
Those close to Chuasiriporn say she inherited her distrust of
shortcuts from her Thai-immigrant parents, who own and operate
Baltimore's Bangkok Place restaurant. Brooks sharpens the point,
noting that the Chuasiriporns lived for years in cramped
quarters behind a small market they owned. "Jenny didn't have
parents who left for work in the morning," he says. "Their
physical closeness taught her: You work hard, you succeed." He
adds, "She's appreciative."

Right now she appreciates Duke. "I love it here," she said
during a recent golf-free stretch at school. "I'm trying to make
the most of the time I have left." Meaning...long nights at the
library?

She laughed. "I'll be going to a lot of basketball games, too."

"Sometimes golf turns into a hard mistress." The man making this
observation is Ken Rose--father, swing coach and traveling
companion to Justin Rose. It is a Tuesday in Auckland, New
Zealand, and Rose is watching his son play a practice round on a
windblown course bordered by sheep farms and riven by fern
gullies. The Roses are a long, long way from their home in Hook,
a village near London.

Exaltation to exile. That's how it must seem to Justin, who
turned pro in July, when he turned 18, and could turn into an
old man by Christmas. In 10 events since his improbable fourth
at the Open--the best finish there by an amateur in 45
years--Rose has yet to pick up a pence of prize money. In
November, at the European tour qualifying school, he shot 80 in
the final round and failed to earn his card for '99. Now he is
dying Down Under. The week before, in the Australian Open, he
blew a two-foot putt on the 17th and made double bogey on the
18th to miss the 36-hole cut by a stroke. "As an amateur he used
to make professional cuts very easily," says Ken, "but the
pressures are different now, and he's under the microscope as
well."

The scrutiny began when Justin shot 66 in a second-round gale at
Royal Birkdale. It heightened when he holed a 45-yard wedge shot
on the 72nd hole, causing the grandstands to erupt. "That was a
bit of a fairy tale, wasn't it?" says Justin, grinning at the
memory.

The very fact that it is a memory is what sets Rose apart from
other rookie pros. They are pursuing dreams. He is trying to
catch the next wave. "Maybe all that excitement at the Open got
to me a little bit," he says, "and I lost my form."

Actually, it was an equipment snafu that made Rose's first
months as a pro so difficult. On the eve of the British Open his
driver was either misplaced or stolen. Its replacement--pulled
at random from an equipment rep's bag on the practice
range--served him well that week, so Justin continued to use it.
Before long, though, he was hitting only three or four fairways
a round and, despite his efforts to correct the problem, his
swing became overly steep and unsynchronized.

"Four weeks ago I took the club in to have the swing weight
checked," says Ken. "It was D-naught! There's nobody in the game
who could swing a club with a shaft that light." Rose switched
back to a driver with a D-6 swing weight, and overnight his
distance and accuracy returned. "You've got to know your
equipment," says his dad. "That's the biggest lesson we've
learned."

Yet to be learned: how to kill time in foreign lands. Ken likes
to go out at night, but his grind of a son prefers to watch some
telly and be in bed by 10. "Sometimes," Ken says, "I twist his
arm, and we go to a movie."

Was Justin foolish to turn pro so young? "I don't think so," says
his dad. "Definitely not," says the fledgling pro, who dismisses
his recent struggles with a smile. "It hasn't really dented my
confidence," he says.

To prove it, he lashes a low, piercing drive into a crosswind so
strong that his father has to hold his straw hat on with two
hands. "Good shot, that," yells Ken, watching the ball drop
safely between a pond and some grassy mounds.

It was a needed reminder that Rose, like his three counterparts
in the States, is in it for the long haul. Chuasiriporn will
probably turn pro after the NCAAs next May, assuming she passes
Biological Anthropology and Introduction to the Lower
Extremities. Kuchar might dip his toe back in the endorsement
stream next summer, after another showcase at Augusta. Martin
will drive on toward his goal--a PGA Tour card. "I know I can do
it someday," Martin says.

Actually, they all said that.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH FRISHMAN REFLECTIONS Martin is singing a different tune about pro athletes. [Casey Martin at piano] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Kuchar congratulates himself on the move that he didn't make--turning pro. "It's all money, money," he says. [Matt Kuchar and dog Hogan] COLOR PHOTO: MANUELLO PAGANELLI A picture of perfect contentment at Duke, Chuasiriporn says, "I'm the same person I was before the Open." [Jenny Chuasiriporn sitting inside picture frame] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CALLOW Did Rose, who has yet to make a cut, err by going pro?"Definitely not," he says. "It hasn't dented my confidence."[Justin Rose playing arcade game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)