2000: Kuchar, Baddeley turn professional

The speculation has ended regarding two of the game’s more interesting young pro prospects, Matt Kuchar and Aaron Baddeley.

Kuchar, 22, the 1997 U.S. Amateur champion who rejected the temptation to leave college early and turn professional after top-20 performances at the ’98 Masters and U.S. Open, will make his long-awaited pro debut Nov. 23 at the Holden Australian Open.

Joining Kuchar in the Australian Open field as a pro will be Baddeley, the event’s 19-year-old defending champion. Baddeley turned professional Nov. 1, and was slated to make his play-for-pay debut this week at the Taiheiyo Masters in Japan.

After failing to qualify for match play at the U.S. Amateur, Kuchar took a job 10 weeks ago with an investment banking firm in Boca Raton, Fla. He made it clear, however, that pro golf was not out of the picture. Kuchar said he had a revelation of sorts while playing in the Westin Texas Open three weeks later.

“I got that feeling that the Tour was beckoning,” Kuchar said. “I ran into a lot of old friends, and it felt like it was the place to be. I talked to Stewart Cink, who’s been kind of a big brother to me. He said you’ve got to find out how good you can be, and this is where you test yourself.”

Kuchar, who graduated from Georgia Tech last spring, missed the cut by six shots in Texas, shooting 72-74. His plan is to fine-tune his game during a three-tournament stretch in Australia (the Open, the Australian PGA Championship and the Ford Open Championship), then spend time with his new instructor, Rick Smith, before trying to earn a PGA Tour card via the sponsor exemption route.

“He did not want to go to Q-school,” said Peter Kuchar, Matt’s father. “But he’s playing some good golf right now, and finally making the commitment to go pro was a huge hurdle to overcome.”

Smith said he’s impressed by Kuchar’s maturity and on-course demeanor.

“Matt has great enthusiasm for the game,” Smith said. “It’s refreshing to see that.

“And his ability is obvious. He had to make some big decisions after having so much success at the Masters and the Open. He had to live that out, and now he’s realized that playing golf is what he wants to do. He’s just got to get out there and be competitive again.”

Baddeley, meanwhile, has been focused on turning pro for months.

“This has been a great year for experience,” he said during a news conference to announce his plans. “I’ve played two majors, seven U.S. tour events. I’ve played with the world’s best, Tiger Woods and David Duval, and I feel it is the time.”

Dale Lynch, who coaches Baddeley, said his star pupil’s game “now technically is very close to what it needs to be.” Lynch said Baddeley’s ball-striking had “slowly deteriorated” during the summer as he learned to deal with the demands of preparation and travel on the PGA Tour.

Like Kuchar, Baddeley hopes to earn enough money (equal to the earnings of No. 125 on the 2000 money list) via sponsor exemptions to gain his card.

– Dave Seanor

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