2001: Who’s smiling now?

On a crisp, autumn morning in Virginia, hours before his pro-am tee time at the Michelob Championship, Matt Kuchar is having far more success narrowing down the breakfast menu than he is trying to identify the single best aspect of securing his PGA Tour playing privileges for 2002.

Breakfast is easy: Short stack of pancakes, corned beef hash, a side of bacon. But the rewards of a PGA Tour card? That’s a veritable buffet.

For Kuchar, 23, having a card means controlling his schedule in 2002, and not ricocheting around the globe from continent to continent, tour to tour, like a golf ball down a concrete cart path. It means avoiding the Tour’s autumn house of horrors, the dreaded three-stage Qualifying School. It also means a new tax bracket. In locking up his card, Kuchar has pocketed $533,253 in nine PGA Tour starts, has the inside track on another $500,000 as leader of the Tour’s Fall Finish standings, and has met a contractual stipulation that will sweeten existing endorsement deals with Precept and Hugo Boss.

All exquisite perks, definitely. But to Kuchar, there is something that transcends the convenience of future scheduling and the sudden splendor of monetary gains.

“The best part,” says Kuchar, “could very well be respect – the respect of a lot of other players out here. Now that I have a card, I’m truly one of them. All those other things are nice, but now I have a home. I have a place to play. And it’s a place where I think I belong.”

After missing the cut in his first three PGA Tour starts of 2001, Kuchar, playing on sponsor exemptions, basically secured his card for next season with two big finishes: a tie for third at the Air Canada Championship in Vancouver, which delivered $197,200, and a tie for second at the Texas Open, which paid $264,000. Because he is a special temporary member (a status granted after he surpassed the earnings of the 150th player on the 2000 money list), Kuchar isn’t listed among the PGA Tour’s official earnings leaders, but his total ranks him 87th. With four weeks left in the season, he’s a cinch to finish among the top 125.

By earning enough through sponsor exemptions to avoid Q-School, Kuchar joins such players as Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods and, most recently, Charles Howell III, who this season has gone from having no status on the PGA Tour to making a run at the top 30 and the Tour Championship. When it comes to golf’s young guns and shining moments in 2001, however, Kuchar and Howell, 22, aren’t alone. David Gossett, 22, who started the season on the Buy.com Tour, won the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic; Paul Casey captured the Scottish PGA Championship; and Bryce Molder tied for third in his PGA Tour debut at Reno-Tahoe.

“These guys aren’t afraid of anything,” said instructor Rick Smith, who coaches several PGA Tour players, including Mickelson and Kuchar. “I think it shows the talent these kids have to make it under difficult, limited circumstances. These young guys are like veterans. Their technique is good and they’ve competed at a very high level. The way the Tour is structured, they don’t have many opportunities. They earn it the hard way.

“Matt and I talked at the beginning of the year, and I told him he’d be so far ahead if he could avoid the Q-School. The intensity of that week keeps a lot of very good players off the Tour. He really took a lot of heat off himself.”

Kuchar knows what it’s like to handle the heat. As 1997 U.S. Amateur champion, he made the most of his major championship starts in 1998, finishing 21st at the Masters and 14th at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. He won fans instantly with his powerful play and his bright, infectious Opie Taylor grin. By the time the British Open arrived, he was contemplating skipping his final two years at Georgia Tech to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak.

He opted to walk away from millions in potential endorsements to return to college. When he failed to sustain such a high level of play upon his return to Tech, decided to stay amateur and briefly took a job in finance when he left college, and then struggled in his first few months as a pro, he incessantly was second-guessed for passing on such a lucrative opportunity.

“He’s proved something,” Smith said. “A lot of people questioned what he did. I told him a long time ago, if you’re good enough and you believe in yourself, you’ll be there. Talent always prevails.”

In the past year, Kuchar has played from Australia to Mexico, played events on the Buy.com Tour, Canadian Tour, and even bought a spot to compete on the Golden Bear Tour. He went week-to-week, not knowing when and where he’d be playing next. But four days in San Antonio, where he shot 67-68-64-69 at the Texas Open, stamped his passport for next season. He hopes to make two or three more PGA Tour starts this year – he has been extended invitations to play the National Car Rental Classic at Walt Disney World and Southern Farm Bureau Classic – in hopes of moving into the top 70 on the money list (thus earning invites to next year’s invitationals).

He says he never regretted his decision to stay in school in 1998, when people were telling him he had to choose between two worlds. As Robert Frost once wrote, sometimes in life it is best to take the road less traveled.

“Now that I’ve performed well and have a card,” Kuchar said, “maybe people will realize that maybe I did make the right move.”

And look who’s smiling now.

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