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IN CASE you missed it, Matt Kuchar made his pro debut on the PGA Tour last week—2½ years too late and minus millions of dollars in endorsement money. He received not a second of TV time and attracted virtually no interest from the reporters or the fans at the Sony Open. He didn't have a logo on his shirt or a courtesy car in his driveway. In other words everything went according to plan. "I wouldn't have had it any other way," Kuchar said following an opening 71 at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. "There are no regrets. It has been a wonderful experience just getting to this point."
That's the problem with Kuchar: His perspective is far too wide for someone so young. Ever since he burst onto the scene at the 1998 Masters, a 19-year-old college sophomore with a boyish grin and an outrageously mature game, the rest of us have been obsessed with his destination while he has been thrilled with the journey. Though he missed the cut by two strokes at the Sony, which was won by Brad Faxon, Kuchar left town in typically high spirits. "I learned what I need to work on with my swing," he said, "and I got to experience Hawaii a little bit. It's a neat place."
That Kuchar took the time to stop and smell the orchids is admirable, given his pressure-packed circumstances. Having graduated last May after a mostly brilliant career at Georgia Tech, Kuchar did a stint in the straight world before deciding to turn pro last fall, by which point it was too late to go through Q school.
Save the crucible of Monday qualifying, Kuchar's only entree to tournaments this season is through sponsors' exemptions, of which he, as a nonmember of the Tour, is restricted to seven. (He's down to six after accepting Sony's invite.) If, in those precious few starts, Kuchar makes $247,037, the equivalent of 150th on last year's money list, he can apply for special temporary membership to the Tour, which would allow him to accept an unlimited number of sponsors' exemptions and, theoretically, play a decent number of events.
It is a brutal scenario, made all the more challenging by a maddening uncertainty: Kuchar has no idea which tournaments he will get into. Pebble Beach looks promising, and the Bay Hill Invitational, near his hometown of Lake Mary, Fla., is a possibility, but beyond that his schedule is pure guesswork. "This isn't an easy route, but neither is Q school," Kuchar says. "There are no free passes to get on Tour. Honestly, I'm not too worried about it. If things don't work out in seven, there's always the Buy.com tour or Europe or even the Australasian tour. Lots of possibilities."
It is tempting to dismiss Kuchar's optimism as the ignorance of youth. In fact his attitude is based on just the opposite. He has been through so much during his short career that he has been left with the unshakable belief that, in golf, anything is possible.
Kuchar's wild ride began with a victory at the '97 U.S. Amateur, the first of the post-Tiger Woods era. That triumph earned him an invitation to the '98 Masters, and it was there that this Opie Taylor in spikes captivated the nation. Tied for the lead through 14 holes of the first round, Kuchar went on to shoot an even-par 288, a score bettered by only four other amateurs in the tournament's history. Two months later, at the U.S. Open, rounds of 70 and 69 put him in a tie for fourth place, and by eight holes into the third round he had moved up to solo second. Kuchar would finish 14th, the best showing by an amateur at the national championship since 1971, when Jim Simons tied for fifth and Lanny Wadkins came in 13th.
With his telegenic looks and seemingly unlimited potential, Kuchar was an advertiser's dream. In the wake of the Open one widely quoted estimate put his endorsement value at $2 million a year, and with so much at stake, a feeding frenzy ensued among agents, manufacturers and assorted others desperate to pitch woo to Kooch. "There was some pretty weird stuff going on back then," says Peter Kuchar, Matt's father. "One guy from Iowa called claiming to own a million chickens. He wanted to pay Matt like $50,000 to come out to the farm for the day and play golf with some of his clients."
It's no wonder Matt fled back to Tech in the fall of '98, for what was supposed to be, as he calls it, "a little grace period." The plan was for Kuchar to spend a quarter on campus decompressing and then announce he was turning pro in a splashy ceremony at the PGA Merchandise Show in January 1999. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank: Back at school Kuchar was having the time of his life just being a kid again. He was the leader of one of the top-ranked teams in the country, a remarkably cohesive bunch that studied together, partied together and often convened for late-night hoops games on the floor of Georgia Tech's basketball arena, which Kuchar had access to thanks to his roommate, Matt Judy, who was the manager for the Yellow Jackets' basketball team.
Kuchar had joined Judy that fall in an old three-bedroom house on Lynch Avenue, in downtown Atlanta. Unfortunately, Judy already had two other roommates, which left only the dining room for Kuchar. He gamely hung shelves to hold his clothes, taped curtains over the French doors for privacy and settled into this quintessential college crash pad. With a big porch and a front door that was never locked, the house on Lynch Avenue quickly became party central. "A typical bash," says Judy, "was half the basketball team, all the golfers, a bunch of football players, some frat guys and many, many sorority girls."