Kuchar traveling PGA's back roads

May 25, 2006|By STEVE ELLING | STEVE ELLING,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Two days after the most positive development in his career in years, Matt Kuchar was driving through Birmingham, Ala., on Tuesday morning, tooling along to his next tournament while simultaneously recapping the highlights of his most recent start.

He was experiencing, metaphorically and realistically, the highways and byways of the unpredictable pro game.

"I'm cruising along I-20," he said of his whereabouts.

Anybody with 20-20 vision when the Orlando native leaped onto the national scene as a college sophomore would be surprised to learn of the not-so-exotic tournament locales he's been frequenting of late, including Athens, Ga., Fort Smith, Ark., and Richmond, Va. Obviously, big-league stops like Riviera, Augusta and Colonial, they are not.

But leave it to the relentlessly upbeat Kuchar, whose panache and demeanor made him the world's most famous amateur in 1997-1998, to make the best of his situation. Kuchar could find a rainbow in the Sahara.

"You know, Birmingham is actually quite pretty," he said, supplying a guided tour as he drove. "I had no idea until one of my buddies moved over here. It's kind of mountainous and has some great elevation chances. It's really a nice area."

After recording his first victory in four years last weekend, the real elevation change - full membership on the PGA Tour - is back on his potential itinerary. After three mostly lean years in golf's big leagues, the affable 27-year-old stands eighth in Nationwide Tour earnings, wherein the top 20 on the money list at year's end are automatically promoted to the PGA Tour.

In contention Sunday for the first time in years, Kuchar birdied the 18th to force a playoff at the Nationwide's Henrico County Open outside Richmond, then won on the third extra playoff hole. In perhaps the best ball-striking week of his career, Kuchar resurfaced on the golfing atlas, where careers are drawn in pencil, not colored ink.

Kuchar, the 1997 U.S. Amateur champion, won the Honda Classic in early 2002 as a veritable PGA Tour rookie, but hadn't sniffed a victory since, falling steadily backward and onto the Nationwide developmental circuit in 2006. But he remembered how to deliver the victory when the time came.

"It comes back real quick," he said, laughing. "It had been a while and I think that adds to what a special feeling it is. Maybe if you were to win every week, it might not get old, but it would become more routine, versus the joy of the experience when you have a while between wins."

Beyond his ever-present smile, Kuchar was in danger of becoming a memory as an actual player. After winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur as a college sophomore, he posted the best finish at the Masters by an amateur in 20 years, then held his own alongside the pros at the 1998 U.S. Open in San Francisco. Yet whoever coined the term "can't miss" with regard to prospects obviously never held a putter, because for the most part, Kuchar has had trouble duplicating his early, memorable flashes of brilliance.

Those surreal outings created huge expectations, but also have pushed him through the leanest times, like the 2003-2005 seasons, when he finished outside the top 125 on the PGA Tour money list, losing his exempt status.

"I think all that stuff, it was absolutely good," he said. "I learned from those things. I have had a number of ups and downs, peaks and valleys.

"I have been forced to dig my way out of it, but I always know in the back of my head that I have done it before. That's all a part of golf."

Kuchar had a party on Monday night with friends in Atlanta, where he lives with his wife of 2 1/2 years, a former classmate at Georgia Tech. Sybi Kuchar had given her husband a pep talk a few weeks back when Matt felt he was playing well yet missing cut after cut - his combined earnings in 11 events on the Nationwide and PGA circuits this year was a meager $17,261 before last weekend.

"She was looking at it like I should have been looking at it," he said. "But when you miss cuts, you get so frustrated. It's almost insulting to have to pack your things and leave on Friday afternoon. I had done that a couple of weeks when I felt like my game was on pretty good form."

Last week, it all came together. Kuchar won a U.S. Open local qualifier in Atlanta with a 69, then rolled into Richmond.

"I'm telling you, his swing has never looked better," said his father and former caddie, Peter Kuchar.

This week, using his past-champion's status, he is playing in the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis on the PGA Tour.

Steve Elling writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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