Kuchar, Molder shine early at PGA

Matt Kuchar, left, and Bryce Molder are fighting for their first major championships at Whistling Straits.

Matt Kuchar, left, and Bryce Molder are fighting for their first major championships at Whistling Straits.


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SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – To friends and family, Matt Kuchar is known simply as ‘Kuch.’ He’s known to most golf fans as the wide-eyed amateur who a dozen years ago smiled his way around Augusta National and Olympic Club.

Kuchar’s career path hasn’t been the linear ascension that was expected after he won the 1997 U.S. Amateur, then played well at the following year’s Masters (T-21) and U.S. Open (T-14). But he’s back in the spotlight now. Kuchar shot 69 Friday, and at 8-under 136, was leading the PGA Championship when he completed his round.

“When I first came out, some guys talked to me about this 10-year learning curve out here on the PGA Tour,” Kuchar said. “I don’t know if I bought into it at the time.

“There may be something to it.”

Bryce Molder, his former Georgia Tech teammate, isn’t far off Kuchar’s pace. Molder has fired 72-67 at Whistling Straits, and is three behind Kuchar. He saw Kuchar’s good play coming. They played 27 holes of practice this week, during which Kuchar made 13 birdies.

“I am never surprised by anything he does,” Molder said. “I have known him long enough that when he holed out at 13 (for eagle in the first round) – he was playing behind me – I told the guys in my group if it was anybody else I wouldn’t believe it, but it’s Matt.”

Molder can relate to Kuchar’s career path. He is one of just four players, including David Duval and Phil Mickelson, to be a four-time, first-team All-American. But he’s just starting to establish himself on the PGA Tour after nine years as a professional.

“We’re finding out everyone has trouble throughout their career at some point or another,” Molder said. “I think 15 years from now I’ll feel like I was fortunate to do it early and learn and be humbled by the experience and enjoy the rest of the journey.”

Molder has just one win on the Nationwide Tour to his name. He earned his first Tour card in ’02, but had to wait five years to return. This is the first time in his career that he’s played the Tour for consecutive seasons.

“Sometimes it take as little while to figure out how to play your best, how to maximize your efforts out here,” he said.

Molder has always been a solid putter who could scramble his way to a good score. But when he turned professional, he felt the need to hit the ball perfectly, as well, because he was concerned good putters are perceived as “lucky.” Now he’s just concerned with the number on his scorecard, not how the round looks.

Kuchar, a two-time PGA Tour winner, has also done time on the Nationwide Tour, returning as recently as ’06. He’s played the past four seasons on the PGA Tour, improving each year.

He hasn’t won this season, but has eight top-10 finishes, tied with Retief Goosen for the most on Tour. Kuchar has finished outside the top-25 just six times in 20 starts. He tied for sixth at this year’s U.S. Open.

That consistency has Kuchar on the verge of his first Ryder Cup bid. He started the week ranked seventh on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list. The top eight at week’s end clinch spots on the team, which will face Europe Oct. 1-3 at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales. Kuchar played the first two rounds alongside European captain Colin Montgomerie.

Kuchar credits much of his good play to his instructor, Chris O’Connell, whom he met while playing the Nationwide circuit in ’06. O’Connell is family friends with Matt Weibring, another of Kuchar’s teammate at Georgia Tech.

“He always comes across as optimistic, as looking forward, not backward,” O’Connell said. “He has a fresh exuberance about him.

“But he has been honest with me, that after he won early in 2002, he said, ‘It would’ve shocked me if you told me it would’ve taken seven years for me to win another one.’ ”

Like Molder, Kuchar was a strong putter. He got even better with the flatstick after switching to a cross-handed grip two years ago. The work with O’Connell has helped make Kuchar a more consistent ball-striker, eliminating the occasional big miss that can mar an otherwise good round. Making just two bogeys over the PGA’s first two rounds is proof. If he can keep it up, he could once again be a household name for golf fans.

“When I finished my rounds at the Masters in ‘98, I remember being disappointed it was over,” Kuchar said. “I felt like I was walking on clouds.”

He’ll have a similar feeling if he can walk away with victory at this PGA Championship.

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