Kuchar Reflects On Amateur Days

Six-time PGA Tour Winner and Wade Hampton member delights Senior Amateur audience at dinner

Speaking at the Senior Amateur Sweet 16 Dinner, Matt Kuchar told attendees his 1997 U.S. Amateur triumph ranks among his greatest achievements as a player. (USGA/Chris Keane)
By David Shefter, USGA
September 25, 2013

CASHIERS, N.C. – Prominently displayed in Matt Kuchar’s Sea Island, Ga., residence is one of his most prized possessions.

A large, framed match-play draw sheet from the 1997 U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill., hangs from the wall. When friends stop by, it quickly becomes a conversation piece.

“They can’t wait to see the names,” said Kuchar, who was the guest speaker at a special Tuesday night dinner during the 2013 USGA Senior Amateur at Wade Hampton Golf Club, where he’s an honorary member.

Kuchar, now 35, defeated Joel Kribel, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole final of the ’97 Amateur. But there were other familiar names who qualified for the draw that year, including future Masters champion Trevor Immelman and future PGA Tour winners Tim Clark, John Rollins, J.J. Henry, Arron Oberholser, Jason Gore, Bryce Molder and Ryuji Imada. There were also established amateurs such as Buddy Marucci (two-time Walker Cup captain and 2008 Senior Amateur champion), Mitch Voges (1991 U.S. Amateur champion), Tim Hogarth (1996 Amateur Public Links champion) and Tom McKnight (1998 Amateur runner-up).

“That was really one of the key moments of my career,” Kuchar told the attendees, which included the final 16 competitors in the Senior Amateur, USGA volunteer Rules officials and staff, Wade Hampton senior staff and invited guests, including two-time (1986 and 1989) Senior Amateur champion R.S. “Bo” Williams. “I look back at my greatest moments in golf and it’s winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur.

“I went to Arnold Palmer’s event [in suburban Detroit] commemorating the 50th anniversary of his win in 1954. He called it the ‘turning point’ of his career. What a special moment for all of us past U.S. Amateur champions to be a part of that.”

Kuchar’s 30-minute question-and-answer session, moderated by Wade Hampton General Manager/Chief Operating Officer Jeff Heilbrun, began with him congratulating the Senior Amateur competitors for their accomplishments this week.  He then covered everything from the differences between amateur and professional golf, to team competitions such as the Walker and Ryder Cups, to the swing change that altered his career and vaulted him among the world’s elite players. He currently is the eighth-ranked player in the world with more than $15 million in career earnings.

Amazingly, Kuchar almost took a very different path, and strongly considered  being a career amateur when he graduated from Georgia Tech in 2000. Three years removed from his Amateur victory at Cog Hill in suburban Chicago, Kuchar briefly took a job in south Florida as an investment banker. The thought of playing more U.S. Amateurs and making additional Walker Cup teams appealed to him.

His 1999 Walker Cup experience at Nairn Golf Club in Scotland, despite a USA defeat, remains one of his fondest memories. Given that this year’s Match at National Golf Links of America fell during a bye week on the PGA Tour, Kuchar wanted to attend as a fan and alum. But his 5-year-old son, Cameron, had his tonsils removed that week.

The affable Kuchar, whose omnipresent smile is on display on and off the course, spoke eloquently about a small shoe bag given to him at the 1999 Walker Cup as a keepsake, an item friends on the PGA Tour ask him about.

“I see other guys at Sea Island like Harris English, who was on the Walker Cup Team [in 2011],” said Kuchar. “He told me, ‘Man, that bag is really cool. I wish we got something like that.’ I said, ‘Just hold on to all of your [Walker Cup] stuff. You’ll find something that is really cool and a great keepsake from that event.”

Despite all of his success as a pro, Kuchar still holds amateur golf in high regard. He mentioned that some of his closest friends today are amateur golfers who still compete in events like the U.S. Mid-Amateur, the Crump Cup at Pine Valley and the Coleman Invitational at Seminole Golf Club. They maintain the same passion he does for the game but have found alternative ways to carve out a living.

“They want to win trophies,” he said. “What a great honor that is. It’s a great way to leave your legacy.”

Kuchar’s amateur legacy was well intact by the time he turned professional.  Not only had he won the U.S. Amateur and played on a USA Walker Cup Team, but he had also won the 1998 Haskins Award, given to college golf’s player of the year, and was the low amateur at both the 1998 Masters and U.S. Open.

Many people urged Kuchar to turn professional in the summer of 1998. He didn’t listen. He wanted to earn his college degree and see where his golf game was at that juncture.

When he accepted a sponsor’s invitation to play in his first PGA Tour event as a professional, the 2000 Westin  Texas Open, he knew he chose the right career path. Despite missing the cut that week, Kuchar realized his game stacked up against the world’s best players. He had two top-three finishes the following year, and in 2002 won  the Honda Classic.

But after that maiden pro victory, Kuchar’s career got sidetracked. A series of struggles forced a demotion to the Nationwide [now Web.com] Tour, But Kuchar used the setback as a learning experience.

“We’re truly spoiled on the PGA Tour,” he said. “We get courtesy cars … and get treated like kings.

“When you go down to the Nationwide Tour, you have to stand in line to rent cars. You do all these things that seem like a hassle. Most people struggle with it. I went down and actually found my comfort zone.”

He also discovered Chris O’Connell, who completely turned his career and game around.

Kuchar’s swing was overhauled and his confidence soared.

“It’s not the prettiest swing,” said Kuchar laughing. “All the guys go for pretty [these days]. That’s not my thing. But it definitely works.

“I needed to figure out what works best for me. I don’t need to drive it 320 yards and have 130-mile-per-hour clubhead speed to hit a wedge shot close.”

By 2010, he was on the U.S. Ryder Cup Team and recipient of the Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average. In 2012, he tied for third at The Masters and won The Players Championship, while making 21 of 22 cuts. This past year, he won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the Memorial. He also didn’t miss a cut in 23 starts.

 “That’s one feat I am most proud of,” said Kuchar of being consistent. “There’s always a quest to get better. All of us have that drive. That’s the great thing about the game of golf; that never-ending quest no matter how old or young we are to get that extra 10 yards or that extra consistency.”

Before his session concluded, a question came from a competitor about the 1997 Amateur. Did he recall one match that might have been the turning point?

In the third round, Kuchar faced Rollins, who at the time was a standout at Virginia Commonwealth University. The two couldn’t have been more different. Rollins was big and burly and Kuchar was “skinny and scrawny.” Even when he shook hands with him, Kuchar thought Rollins “growled” at him. The two had previously played together at a college event at Duke University and Kuchar admitted being intimidated by him.

They battled the entire match, with Kuchar finally going 1 up on the 17th hole. He eventually prevailed by that margin, allowing him to march on to a victory that still evokes special feelings for a world-class pro who clearly still has a close tie to the amateur game.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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