The man just couldn't help himself. It was another perfect summer night at Camp Wulamat in central New Hampshire, where he had been coming with his family for more than 40 years. The sun was setting behind the mountains surrounding Newfound Lake, its water as clear as glass. Everyone looked so handsome and happy sitting around that picnic table under the trees that...well, you can't blame a grandfather for getting caught up in such a moment.
So Maurice Kuchar, the man they call Big Kooch, raised his cup and gave a toast. He talked about the fabulous day they had just enjoyed, golfing and pitching horse-shoes and foraging for blueberries. He spoke of the joy he felt during this annual pilgrimage, and how much he looked forward to many happy returns. As he wound down his speech, he glanced down at his grandson. That's when Big Kooch took a puff on his pipe dream. "Here's to Matt at the Masters," he said.
Matt, who had just turned 19, had already shown much promise as a golfer, becoming a third-team All-America during his freshman year at Georgia Tech. So it was certainly within reason to suggest that a trip to the Masters was in his future. But even Big Kooch couldn't have dreamed at that moment that his prophecy would come to pass before the family's next trip to Camp Wulamat. Nor could he have imagined that Matt not only would play at the Masters the following April—he earned an invitation by winning the U.S. Amateur last August—but also, with an even-par 288, would finish with the fifth-best score by an amateur in the 62-year history of the tournament. Or that Matt would become an overnight sensation by exhibiting such a boyish joie de vivre as he played that fans would remember him as much for his engaging smile as for the prodigious gifts that might make him a star.
That is, unless his back gives out first. It could happen given the way the world keeps pounding on it. When Kuchar walked into the Augusta National clubhouse for the champions' dinner on the Sunday night of the Masters, the members gave him a standing ovation. When he sat down in his management class at eight o'clock the next morning, the teacher called for a round of applause. He signed autographs at a North Carolina gas station in the middle of nowhere while en route to the ACC championships the weekend after the Masters (Kuchar finished third, Tech second). Ely Callaway, founder of the golf company that bears his name, wants to have lunch with him. An anonymous young female letter writer wants to "get to know the man behind the smile." As Tom Cushman put it in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Kuchar is "so all-American it's a wonder people don't hum The Star-Spangled Banner when he passes."
Kuchar can certainly expect more accolades this week, when he plays in his first PGA Tour event since Augusta, the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga., 20 miles from the Georgia Tech campus. He has no qualms about being the life of the fairway. "I always wanted to be like Arnold Palmer," Kuchar says. "He's such a people person, great with signing autographs, great with the media. I always wanted to be a person who people enjoyed watching like that." Says his mother, Meg, "What he's doing is truly acknowledging the crowd. People are so hungry for that."
Athletically speaking, the only real problem Kuchar has had to this point is figuring out which sport to dominate. Growing up in Lake Mary, Fla., 40 minutes north of Orlando, Kuchar played in a youth soccer league with older boys. He was the best player on the team. By the time he was 10, he was a state-ranked tennis player in the 12-and-under age group. He can dunk a basketball (he's 6'4"), run a pool table and bowl a 200 game. Also, says his father, Peter, a 48-year-old insurance salesman, "I'll bet you don't know two people who can beat him at Ping-Pong."
Matt's passion for—and success at—athletics can be traced to that grand old toastmaster, Big Kooch. Maurice was an all-state football player in Manchester, N.H., and the center on one of the few undefeated teams in the history of the University of New Hampshire.
His son Peter tried lots of sports, but his best was tennis. He was the captain of the varsity at Stetson, and 10 years ago his doubles team was ranked No. 1 in Florida in the 35-and-over age group.
Peter is more famous these days for being the guy who carried Matt Kuchar's bag at the Masters. Peter was very much the hands-on sports dad while Matt was growing up, coaching his son's soccer teams and taking him on road trips to Fenway Park and the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Their battles at table tennis are so intense that they usually walk away from the table drenched in sweat. "That's what I wanted when I had a son, someone to read the sports page with in the morning," Peter says. "He just followed me around." When Peter decided to take up golf in earnest in 1989, Matt was happy to tag along.
Matt was 10� when he played his first round and remembers that his score was "right around 100." He was breaking 80 regularly by the time he was 14 and shot 69 in a junior tournament at 15. He made the high school varsity as a seventh-grader and won the conference championship the following year. "He took to the game immediately," Peter says. "People would walk by him on the range and say, 'Wow, what a swing.' He was a natural."