AUGUSTA — Fifteen years ago a young golfer burst on to the scene with a strong performance in the Masters Tournament and returns to Augusta National Golf Club this week as one of the favorites to contend for the green jacket.
No, it isn’t Tiger Woods. His remarkable Masters breakthrough was 16 years ago when he changed professional golf with his record-breaking Masters win.
The golfer in question is Matt Kuchar. While he didn’t do anything as grand as Woods, much less win a green jacket, Kuchar made a name for himself on the national and worldwide stage with his performance as an amateur at the 1998 Masters.
“It is so exciting to be back here,” Kuchar said Monday. “It’s certainly one of my favorite places to come. I have such great memories here.”
Kuchar shot 72-76-68-72–288 to finish in a tie for 21st place in 1998, his first Masters. Then a player for Georgia Tech, Kuchar finished as the low amateur and briefly had his name on the leaderboard.
“I had so much excitement, and so many great memories,” the now 34-year-old Kuchar said as he prepares for his seventh Masters. “I remember every day walking up the 18th with Dad caddying for me and kind of pulling back for a minute and just trying to soak it all in, kind of slowing down the walk as we get close to the 18th green going, ‘can you believe we played another round and made our a way around Augusta National and the Masters.’ Just try to enjoy every moment. There were great memories, and ’98, it’s been a long time ago, but it feels like yesterday to me.”
While Kuchar’s career didn’t take off like a rocket launched out of Augusta, he’s steadily picked up steam – and wins – over the years. Last year, Kuchar earned the fourth PGA Tour win of his career at The Players Championship. Overall, he had nine top-10 finishes, including tying for third in Augusta and later ninth at the British Open.
He’s carried that momentum over to this year. In the young season, Kuchar already has three top-10 finishes in eight events. He’s ranked No. 9 in the world and has made more than $2 million in earnings, much of that coming after winning the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship. Expectations are raising for Kuchar, and the next logical step in his career progression would be to win a major.
“I’d like to have a year with multiple wins,” Kuchar said. “I mean, I think the more comfortable you get winning tournaments; I’ve now got five wins, and I’d like to continue that going. But majors are certainly on my radar. I think all of us try to peak for major championships. Everybody wants to get their game in the best shape possible for majors.”
That was almost the case for Kuchar a year ago, when he missed the sudden-death playoff between eventual champion Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen by two strokes. Kuchar had his chances thanks to a consistently strong tournament, carding 71-70-70-69–280, joining Watson as the only players in the field to shoot under par in every round.
While Kuchar puts more stock in performance over past history, he does see some value in coming so close a year ago.
“Major championships certainly are special and are different, but you get more and more comfortable with the first tee just having done it time and time again,” he said. “I feel like I’m more and more comfortable, certainly the butterflies will be there. And when you get in contention, they continue to be there. But just with experience and just getting to do something with regularity, those things thankfully come down a little bit.”
That’s a far cry from his feelings the first time he teed it up, or tried to, in the 1998 Masters. Kuchar, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion was grouped with Woods.
He said he was so nervous about the setting and his playing partner, that he was satisfied that the ball balanced atop the tee when he put it in the ground on No. 1 because he felt like he was trembling uncontrollably.
That happened in spite of the confidence Kuchar had from playing Augusta National previously, the first time as a freshman at Georgia Tech. He also felt inspired after attending the amateur dinner.
“You finish that amateur dinner, and you really feel like this tournament is for you, as an amateur,” reflected Kuchar, who added the college-like experience of bunking with other amateurs in the Crow’s nets was also unforgettable. “This is what it’s supposed to be. You feel like you can go out and win the tournament. It feels like this is – Bobby Jones designed it with amateurs in mind, and they couldn’t wait to have some amateurs have some real success.”
Kuchar was a success. He overcame any nerves and – for a brief time – contended for a green jacket. While great things were predicted for him 15 years ago, Kuchar has taken a deliberate route to become an elite pro golfer. He made it to the PGA Tour full time in 2002 and won the Honda Classic that year. But he struggled to repeat the success and lost his exemption after the 2005 season, spending much of the next year on the then-Nationwide Tour, where he regained his card for pro golf’s top flight.
He’s improved every year since, and in 2010, Kuchar became a legitimate threat to win a tournament any time he was in the field. Now he’s looking for a major breakthrough, and what better place to do it than Augusta, 15 years after making his first big splash. Not to mention the unique status the Masters has for Kuchar.
“Being at Georgia Tech, following kind of the Bobby Jones footsteps, the (fellow Georgia Tech alum) Charlie Yates footsteps, there’s a lot of connections for me; State of Georgia is home,” Kuchar said. “It’s a special place for sure.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.