Matt Kuchar woke up last Thursday morning in the Crow's Nest, the loft in the Augusta National clubhouse where the amateurs bunk, went downstairs and destroyed a hefty breakfast, then decided to kill a few hours before his tee time with Tiger Woods by watching some golf. Standing near the 18th green, Kuchar, the 19-year-old U.S. Amateur champ from Lake Mary, Fla., was recognized by a fan, who asked him what it was like to have his name on the leader board, which is a first-round tradition at the Masters. "I turned around to look and sure enough, my name was on the scoreboard and I hadn't done a darn thing yet," Kuchar said. "It was pretty cool."
Things got way cooler. Later that day, a huge throng, many of them Georgians, surrounded the 1st tee to give Kuchar, a sophomore at Georgia Tech, and Woods a proper send-off. "That ovation was the single best moment of the week," Kuchar said. At first Woods was amused. Then he was impressed. Walking down the 1st fairway on Thursday, Woods turned to his caddie and said, "Hey, Fluff [Cowan], the roles are reversed now. I'm calling him kid." At the end of the week Woods called Kuchar's Masters debut "awesome."
Kuchar, with his father, Peter, as his caddie and his grandparents in his gallery, played so well in the howling winds that he held a share of the lead at two under par after 14 holes of the opening round. No amateur had led after the first day since Ken Venturi in 1956, and that remained the case when Kuchar made a double bogey at the 15th and finished with a 72. He tacked on a 76 on Friday to make the cut, then finished 68-72 to win the silver trophy as the low amateur at even-par 288, 13 shots ahead of the runner-up, Stanford's Joel Kribel. Kuchar ranked eighth in greens in regulation and needed only 117 putts (the same number as Tiger Woods last year). More important, he finished among the top 24 (21st) and thus earned a return ticket to Augusta in '99, becoming the first amateur to play his way back since Sam Randolph in 1985.
The fans took to Kuchar from the start because of his boyish enthusiasm and infectious smile. "I may be smiling a little bit out of embarrassment," Kuchar said. "I can't believe this many people are watching me play golf." When the fans applauded his good shots, Kuchar seemed at a loss. "Everybody else is working on their swings," he said. "I'm working on my wave." That sort of response also made Kuchar a media darling—he wrote Masters diaries for two newspapers.
This week he's playing in the ACC tournament, and this summer he will tee it up in the U.S. Open, the Loch Lomond World Invitational and the British Open before defending his Amateur title in August at Oak Hill, in Rochester, N.Y. Regardless of what happens in those events, Kuchar will always have Augusta. "It was a magical week," he says. "No matter what I do in golf from this point on, I'll be able to look back and tell my kids some fantastic stories."