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Kuchar's journey from teen star at Olympic in 1998 to favorite in 2012 is epic

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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Kuchar enters the week among the favorites, having already won the 2012 Players title. (Getty Images)  
Kuchar enters the week among the favorites, having already won the 2012 Players title. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- For those who hadn't noticed the general differences between the first two major championships of the year, this should just about frame it.

As a teenager playing in both Grand Slam events for the first time in 1998, Matt Kuchar was quick to absorb the jarring difference in timber and tone.

He hiked up the narrow stairs to the Augusta National dining room, yet faced a different ascent at the U.S. Open.

"I remember finishing at Augusta and being disappointed that the round was over," Kuchar laughed. "I found myself in the clubhouse having a cheeseburger and wanting to get back out there. I didn't want it to finish.

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"But I can remember getting back to the clubhouse at Olympic Club and just being exhausted and wanting to go take a nap."

The difference between nighty-night and day, in other words.

The clubhouse at Olympic Club is situated at the top of a hill, a fairly steep hike after such a punishing slog. But there was no question in the melded minds of the golf world that, after watching what Kuchar had done, he was truly prepared to climb the more figurative mountain, or whatever professional stairwell he faced.

Celebrating his 20th birthday during the final round, with his father serving as his caddie, Kuchar finished an impressive T14 at the Open at Olympic as an amateur, demonstrating that his T21 finish at the Masters two months earlier had been no happy fluke.

This week, with the Open back at Olympic for the first time since '98, Kuchar has at last fulfilled the nearly unanimous prophecy that so many envisioned when they first spotted the perpetually smiling, lanky teenager 14 years ago.

Last month, Kuchar won the biggest title of his career, the Players Championship, against the deepest field in the game. In 2010, he topped the PGA Tour in earnings and played on his first Ryder Cup team. He enters this week as one of the half-dozen favorites to win, which only serves to reinforce the only certainty in the game.

Yet for seemingly each of the two steps he made up the game's slippery slope early on, he took another backward. Caddies aren't quite the same as sherpas in this climb. The return to Olympic underscores that despite all his talent, charisma and charm, virtually nothing is assured in this sport.

"Isn't that the truth? There is no guarantee," two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. "He was pretty phenomenal in the Masters, in the Open that year, for such a young man.

"The next step would be to turn pro, make it to Q-school, and come out here and progress quickly on tour. Well, it didn't happen. Isn't that more the norm than not when you think about it?"

Ever since he left the grounds at Olympic after final round, with his dad serving as his caddie for that dizzy Father's Day round, normalcy hasn't often been a word associated with his disjointed career track.

"It has been an interesting path," Kuchar laughed. "The game of golf was presented to me and I have really enjoyed it. I still love the game, love trying to get better, love playing with these guys.

"All of this, it was a road that helped me get to where I am now. It's pretty exciting to think about all the pieces that have fallen into place, and to now be able to come back to Olympic, and hopefully play even better than I did as an amateur."

Why not? Olympic was formed as an all-sports club decades ago, adding golf to the membership options in the 1920s. The iconic symbol of the Olympic Games, of course, is five rings. It's a perfect symmetry, really, in that Kuchar has now come full circle, back to the wellspring on the shores of Lake Merced.

Kuchar, the 1997 U.S. Amateur champion at Cog Hill, had impressed fans with his teenage poise during a 21st-place finish at the Masters, then truly wowed them at Olympic. Kuchar, who had just finished his sophomore year at Georgia Tech, was tied for fourth after 36 holes and played in the penultimate group on Saturday. Even as he navigated the most grueling test in the game that week, he smiled relentlessly, prompting some to jokingly question his sanity.

It didn't belie his real intentions.

"He kind of reminds me a little of Magic Johnson," said Peter Kuchar, Matt's dad, delivering a spot-on description of his son. "Magic would take the ball down the floor, smiling the whole time, as he was driving right through you."

Kuchar didn't take his talents to South Beach or anywhere else. Despite widespread opinion that he was ready to chase professional paychecks, Kuchar famously elected to return to college, leaving a wheelbarrow of cash on the table. All these years later, people still talk about it.

"I had all the contracts in hand, they were all done," Peter Kuchar said. "He came home and said he thought they could win the national championship at [Georgia] Tech. He just didn't want to give that up.

"Personally, I really think he made the right decision. I think his golf game at the time was ready, but I am not sure mentally that he was ready."

In yet another huge Olympic connection, it was Payne Stewart who gave Kuchar the advice that resonated most as the young man weighed his future. Stewart had lost in a tense battle to Lee Janzen for the Open title in 1998.

"He was the one who had the definitive answer when I was asking for opinions of what I should do," Kuchar said. "Pretty much everybody said, 'Matt, you are ready, so strike while the iron is hot.' Payne was the only one who said, 'You have four years to be a college kid and that the tour is going to be here the rest of your life. Stay in school. Enjoy it.' "

Deep down, it was the answer Kuchar had been looking for.

"I just sorta knew my game wasn't good enough to stand up to Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson and those guys who were playing amazing golf," Kuchar said. "I was googly-eyed looking up at those guys.

"It makes you feel really good when you have these great results against the best in the world, and I think I could have gone out and figured things out, but I wasn't sure I had the game to match up against them."

It took a few more years until he was. After two largely average seasons at Tech, Kuchar graduated and elected not to turn pro, spending several months working in the private sector. After missing the cut at the 2000 Texas Open by a stroke, his lone PGA Tour event that year, Kuchar headed home and was haunted by a single thought.

"I remember thinking how badly I wanted to play the next week to redeem myself and prove I could do better," Kuchar recalled. "It was that instant where I decided that if I wanted to see how good I could be, to really test myself, I needed to be out here week in and week out."

Kuchar quickly made the jump to the PGA Tour, and won the Honda Classic in 2002. But a series of lean years followed and he eventually was bumped back down to the second-tier Nationwide Tour, where he completely retooled his swing and scratched his way back, better than ever.

Outside of Luke Donald, it would be difficult to find a player who has been more of a fixture on leaderboards over the past three years. Turns out that -- for all the acclamation in '98 terming Kuchar a nearly completed product as a teenager -- he was something of a late bloomer.

Still, it was easy to get swept up at Olympic the last time around. To understand the reception he received, you almost had to be there. With his admittedly excitable dad serving as his caddie, Kuchar won over the crowd and became an overnight Prince Charming.

Even more storybook, Sunday of the final round was both Father's Day and Matt's 20th birthday. San Franciscans serenaded them both all day long to the point of distraction.

"I think I lived every father's dream," Peter said. "Does it get any better? At every hole they were singing Happy Birthday to Matt and yelling happy Father's Day to me. Surreal. Absolutely surreal."

Like it has for so many others, the game then became a one-man crooning of O Solo Mio, with Kuchar trying to find his way in a sport where smiles don't mean much if nobody is watching and your peers are fighting for the same breadcrumbs.

"When you get on tour, the step from amateur golf to professional golf is so large that, the real star and the real prodigy [who succeed], you can name a handful of them," said Strange, who will be working the broadcast for ESPN this week. "You get on tour, you have to learn how to play all over again, or you just have to improve.

"Nobody gives a rat's ass about you on tour. The old line about half the locker room don't care about you making an 8 on the last hole, and other half wished it had been 9? No truer statement in the world."

This week won't be about 8s and 9s, but swatches of '98. Kuchar -- at this point, it's become pretty predictable -- laughs as he tries to execute the rear-view mirror thing. Has it really been that long?

"It is hard to believe, because the memories are still very fresh," he said quietly. "Sometimes, in my mind, I can't believe it's been 14 years, or 12 years since I graduated from Georgia Tech.

"Those are still some fresh memories, great memories."

All these years later, having reached the top of the hill, the view has never looked better.

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