Matt Kuchar employed the same apple-cheeked smile and gliding gait at the U.S. Open that so captivated the gallery at April's Masters, in which he finished 21st without ever threatening the leaders. But the Georgia Tech junior proved at the Olympic Club that behind his golly-gee exterior lies—pardon the expression—the eye of a tiger.
While the Lake Course spit in the eye of the real Tiger as well as those of most of the game's greats, Kuchar made pars, followed double bogeys with birdies and for nearly three rounds contended for the lead. With a score of nine-over-par 289, Kuchar celebrated his 20th birthday on Sunday by coming in 14th, the best finish by an amateur in an Open in 27 years. It would be accurate, chronologically and otherwise, to say that he began the Open a boy and finished it a man.
Kuchar was proud that he had earned an exemption for next year's Open by finishing in the top 15, but he wanted more. "I wanted to see how high I could finish," he said. "I wanted to see my name on the leader board."
There are two definitions of amateurism. The one preferred in golf is embodied by the sainted Bobby Jones, who became the greatest golfer of his time. Kuchar laid claim to that legacy with his play at Olympic. As the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Kuchar played the first two rounds with the winners of the last Open, Ernie Els, and British Open, Justin Leonard. Kuchar finished ahead of them both. Midway through the second round, Els turned to Kuchar and teased, "After this week you might as well turn pro. You might have that 5-year exemption." Els was referring to the perk that the PGA Tour gives to Open champions. With rounds of 70 and 69, Kuchar stood tied for fourth through 36 holes.
The other definition of amateurism is of a job not performed to professional standards, which is how some players and officials described the antics of Peter Kuchar, Mart's father and caddie, in that order. It is the belief of most Tour pros that caddies, like children, should be seen but nor heard. Peter wore the bag on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve. When Matt holed out for birdie from the greenside rough at the par-3 15th hole on Friday, Peter bounded into the air, high-fived his son and then did an impromptu dance. "Put yourself in my shoes," says Peter, 48, an insurance agent in the Orlando area. "Your son just chipped in for birdie. What are you going to do? Stand there and pretend you're at a funeral?"
The Lake Course was so exacting and the pressure so suffocating that cheers were as rare as a level stance. Usually pars don't attract cheers. All of which made the reception for Matt and Peter more noticeable. They appealed to every member of the gallery. Mothers called to Matt. Daughters called for him. The beer-and-cigar crowd yelled Koooooch. The entire Bay Area fell for him and his dad. "We were driving down the highway," says Meg Kuchar, the mother and wife, "and people came alongside us and yelled, 'Go Matt! Mr. Kuchar, don't change a thing!' " The rest of the nation was also infatuated. NBC devoted more air time to Peter and Matt than any father and son since Marty and Frazier Crane. The Tonight Show left Matt a message in the locker room. "Hey, Larry, I got invited to that late-night TV show," Matt said to his hometown newspaper columnist, Larry Guest of The Orlando Sentinel.
"Which one? Letterman?" Guest said.
"No, the other one," Matt said. "Whatsisname."
Only the Tour pros failed to be swept up in the enthusiasm, especially where Peter was concerned. On Friday, at the same hole on which Matt chipped in for birdie, Leonard four-putted for a double bogey. He bogeyed the next two holes, and by the time the threesome had reached the 18th green, Leonard was in no mood for high jinks. After Kuchar putted out for his 69, Leonard was lining up his putt when he was distracted by the movements of Peter. Leonard glared at him, shook his head in disapproval and resumed his work.
After his round, a 75, Leonard responded to an inquiry about the incident by saying, "Next question." A few moments later he turned to the reporter who had asked him about Kuchar's father and said, "It does me no good to answer that question. You understand?"