Balicki: Kuchar provides a trip down memory lane
Watching Sunday as Matt Kuchar scored the biggest victory of his professional golf career was not only thrilling, but also brought me a great deal of personal joy.
In case you just dropped in from another galaxy and missed it, Kuchar won this year’s Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. No, it’s not a major championship, but many consider it the next best thing.
The 2012 Players Championship: Round 4
View images of the final round coverage of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
The 2012 Players Championship: Round 3
View images of Round 3 during The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday.
Hole No. 18 at TPC Sawgrass
View images by Golfweek's Tracy Wilcox of hole No. 18 during the third round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
And when his final putt disappeared into the cup at the 18th green early Mother’s Day evening and I saw his wife Sybl and two young sons, Cameron, 4, and Carson, 2, run out to hug him, it sent my mind on a trip down memory lane, back to his amateur and collegiate days at Georgia Tech.
I remember when Kuchar first made his way into the national spotlight. That was in August 1997, following his freshman season with the Yellow Jackets. It was when I watched him win match after match en route to winning the U.S. Amateur Championship, beating Joel Kribel 2 and 1 in the 36-hole final at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club just outside of Chicago.
I remember the night before that last match, having dinner with Kuchar and his father/caddy, Peter, talking not only about the current week, but about his trip the following April to Augusta National Golf Club to compete in his first Masters.
Then, after he finished T-21 at the 1998 Masters and that summer 14th at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, I remember talking with him at college and amateur events about his future.
At the time he was under tremendous pressure. He was big-time. Equipment manufacturers, clothing manufacturers, agents, you name it; they all wanted a piece of him. It seemed like people everywhere were telling him his time was right and to take the money and run.
Of course he gave it some long and serious thought, a heavy weight on his mind that no doubt affected his golf game. But in the end, Kuchar decided to remain a student-athlete. He had made a four-year commitment to coach Bruce Heppler and Georgia Tech and he was going to honor it.
That’s just the way Kuchar was – and still is. Besides, as he told me, he was having fun hanging out with his teammates and just being a “college kid.”
During those college and amateur days I was able to play golf with Kuchar a couple times. Once was in a college-am event in Puerto Rico and another was during the Northeast Amateur in Rhode Island.
I will never forget the latter. We were on the tee at the short, par-3 third hole at Wannamoisett Country Club. Kuchar hit first – thank goodness – and put his shot on the green.
I then teed it up, took a mighty swing, and the ball trickled dead left, about 20 feet, and into a group of youngsters sitting against the fence.
Was I embarrassed? You bet. But Kuchar brought the house down.
“Ron,” he said (laugh, laugh, laugh), “that was one of the worst shots I have ever seen (laugh, laugh, laugh). And I’ve seen a lot of bad ones (laugh, laugh, laugh).”
The large crowd joined the fray and burst into laughter. And even though I had my tail tucked between my legs, all I could do was laugh with them.
Kuchar then told me to pick up my ball and he would take care of the hole. He sank his birdie putt. But it took him another two holes to stop laughing.
As a pro, Kuchar has had his ups and downs. After getting his first PGA Tour win in 2002 at the Honda Classic, he went into a bit of a tailspin. In 2005 he finished 159th on the money list, making just nine cuts in 21 starts. The following year he was a regular on the Nationwide Tour, where he won the Henrico County Open. He did make eight PGA Tour starts, but made only two cuts and ended the season 241st on the money list.
Kuchar came back to win again in 2009 at the Turning Stone Resort Championship and again the following year at the Barclay’s.
Now he’s won the prestigious Players Championship, a victory that earned him $1.7 million in purse money and enabled him to move up to No. 5 in the world rankings.
If he wasn’t considered one of the game’s superstars before, he is now.
Still, I don’t expect to see much change in Matt Kuchar the person. That’s just not the way he was brought up, not the way he is and, I believe, not the way he will ever be.
I remember about three years ago, Kuchar was playing the PGA Tour stop in Hartford, Conn., the event being held the same week as the Northeast Amateur, about a three-hour drive away.
Kuchar had an early Friday morning tee time. When he finished his round he loaded Cameron into his car and made the trip up I-95 to Wannamoisett.
He remembered his roots. When I visited with him that afternoon he told me how special the Northeast Am was to him when he was an amateur, how the members of the club embraced him when he was there playing, and how he made so many friendships. He made the time to come back and say hello and let them know they were still special in his book.
I thought then, and still do, that that was a touch of class.
But that’s Matt Kuchar and I don’t believe any amount of success will ever take that away. Oh, and that smile he has become so famous for, he’s always had it.
Over the years there have been some great champions at the Players. Add another to that list.
As for me, all I can do is steal a phrase from the late Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and say, “Matt, thanks for the memories.”