Kuchar makes cut but stays the course Amateur: After his success in the Masters and U.S. and British opens, the Georgia Tech student decides for now that turning pro is not for him.

October 01, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He is back on the Georgia Tech campus, back in the dorms with his buddies and, for the moment, out of the spotlight that followed him to places such as Augusta National, the Olympic Club and Royal Birkdale during a whirlwind spring and summer.

One more thing: Matt Kuchar couldn't be happier.

"He's been able to get a little bit of sanity back," said Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler.

Kuchar seems to have no second thoughts on passing up a chance to turn pro, on not cashing in on a three-month stretch that saw him go from being a relatively unknown U.S. Amateur champion to having one of the most recognizable faces in golf.

The future, which reportedly might include an estimated $10 million to $15 million in endorsement deals, has been put off indefinitely by the junior from Lake Mary, Fla. But Kuchar will continue to get glimpses of what his life might become some day.

One will take place this week, when Kuchar plays in the Buick Challenge, a $1.5 million PGA Tour event at the Callaway Gardens Resort in Pine Mountain, Ga. Today's opening round will follow a dinner last night where Kuchar was to receive the Fred Haskins Award as last season's college player of the year.

"It's exciting for me to be out there," Kuchar said last week by telephone from Atlanta. "I can definitely use the experience. I think I'm pretty close to being ready to play out there. I've made the cut in all the tournaments I've played [in the United States]. I feel very comfortable."

The tournament will give Kuchar another chance to show what he did last year: that he can play with the best in the world. After making the cut at the Bay Hill Invitational, Kuchar made good use of the invitation (as defending Amateur champion) to his first Masters. He stayed in the Crow's Nest as well as in the hunt for more than two rounds before finishing a respectable 21st.

At the U.S. Open outside San Francisco, Kuchar remained near the lead even longer, staying in contention through the front nine on Saturday. He tied for 14th while celebrating his 21st birthday.

It was there that Kuchar and his father, Peter, were painted for the first time in a not-so-positive light.

The elder Kuchar, who has caddied for his son for a couple of years, took the brunt of the criticism. A few PGA Tour stars, in particular Justin Leonard, took exception with what they thought was unprofessional etiquette by Peter Kuchar, who pumped his fists and high-fived his son after a few remarkable shots. Even Matt Kuchar's endearing personality was called an act by at least one cynical columnist.

"It was a bittersweet experience for us," said Peter Kuchar, a former nationally ranked 35-and-over tennis player who is a partner in an insurance company near Orlando.

The British Open was merely a disappointment for both father and son, who missed the cut after failing to make it the week before at the prestigious Loch Lomond Invitational in Scotland. Kuchar watched as another amateur, 17-year-old Justin Rose, stole his spotlight and nearly won the Open, finishing two shots behind Mark O'Meara.

While Kuchar went back to college, the English teen-ager turned pro and then failed to make the cut in his first eight tournaments. Kuchar said that Rose's struggles did not factor into his decision to stay in school through at least his junior year.

"I didn't look at that as confirmation," said Kuchar. "I feel bad for what he's going through. He's a wonderful player. I hope he gets it back to where he had it at the British Open."

Even Kuchar can't say how close he came to turning pro but admits that his performance at the U.S. Open certainly helped clutter the thought process. With agents constantly hounding bTC him, telling him of mega-deals that needed only his signature, Kuchar finally announced his intentions in early August, a few weeks before this year's Amateur.

"I didn't think I was going to turn pro after what I did at the Masters," said Kuchar. "After the U.S. Open, that very next week, the agents were calling with all their ideas, they nearly swayed me. I guess it was about 50-50 until I made the decision."

Peter Kuchar recalled having a conversation with his son after the British Open.

"The only question we addressed was, 'What would make you happy?' " said the father.

The answer was to play another year as an amateur.

Kuchar's bid to defend the Amateur was unsuccessful, as he was beaten in a riveting quarterfinal match at Oak Hill by reigning British Amateur champion Sergio Garcia of Spain. But Kuchar is looking ahead, hoping to team with Bryce Molder and lead Georgia Tech to next year's NCAA championship.

"It's a little different [than the pro tournaments] because I'm the guy being shot at," said Kuchar, who finished tied for 14th in his first tournament since returning to campus, the Ridge Invitational at East Tennessee State University. "But that's been going on since I got back from the Masters."

That's when Kuchar went from being a relative unknown to having one of the most recognizable faces in golf.

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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