Not bad for a one-time investment banker.
It’s easy to forget that Kuchar has performed at an elite level for nearly two decades. As a happy-go-lucky 19-year-old, he contended at both the 1998 Masters and U.S. Open, finishing T-21 and T-14, respectively.
Not only did he reject the pros (and millions in endorsement deals) after his dazzling sophomore year at Georgia Tech, but Kuchar also was the rare college star who didn’t join the play-for-pay set immediately after college, either. Instead, he worked for a few months as an analyst at an investment-banking firm in South Florida as he contemplated becoming a career amateur.
After he finally turned pro – to little fanfare, in late 2000 – Kuchar won only once in the next eight years before transforming into a human ATM.
And so, with world No. 1 Maverick McNealy set to make a decision later this year about whether to pursue a pro or business career, Kuchar reflected recently on his unique path to the PGA Tour.
What factors went into your pro decision?
The biggest debate in my mind with the thought of whether to remain amateur or turn pro was to see how good could I become. Any athlete wants to see how good they can become. I thought that I could maybe do that as an amateur. I thought I could play in enough amateur events and qualify to play in enough professional events – hopefully the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and then a handful of other regular Tour events so that you might get six events a year. So I tried that for a while, and I realized pretty quickly that for me to see how good I could become, I needed to be a professional. I needed to be out there playing week in and week out to really do myself justice to know how good I could become.
What was the turning point?
I remember distinctly playing as an amateur at the 2000 Texas Open in San Antonio at La Cantera. I remember missing the cut by a shot and wanting nothing more than to play the very next week, knowing that I was better than that, knowing that I needed to prove myself, that I needed to really test myself. It was pretty clear to me then that I needed to give it a crack as a professional to really see how good I could become.
After your breakout sophomore year in 1998, why did you choose to stay in school?
Payne Stewart. I played a practice round with him and Paul Azinger at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale. I had a great summer. Played well at the Masters. Played well at the U.S. Open. Everybody was looking for me to turn pro. I asked a number of pros that week, and everybody said, ‘Well, Matt, you seem ready.’ But Payne Stewart was the only one who said to stay amateur. He said: ‘You’ve only got four years to be a college kid, and college is such a great experience. The PGA Tour is going to be here for 100 years. Don’t turn pro and 10 years from now, when you’re in the routine of playing golf on the PGA Tour, think, Gosh, I wish I had two more years to be in college.’ That made a lot of sense to me.
How much pressure did you feel to turn pro?
Not much at all. I wasn’t having a hard time making the decision. I loved being a college kid. I was having too good of a time in college. I wasn’t ready to leave college. Payne Stewart said the thing that triggered in my head that I needed to stay in school.
Matt Kuchar, then 19, after winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur (Getty)
Why didn’t you turn pro immediately after graduation?
I was propositioned by a guy to learn a business skill at a little boutique investment-banking group, with the idea that a professional golfer could make a lot of money, but it also pales in comparison to the earnings that can be made in the business world. This was a degree I had, something I was interested in, and I thought that I could learn a real-life experience and also see how good I could be as an amateur. So I said it was worth a shot. I spent nearly a year doing that [about six months]. And I enjoyed it. But after San Antonio [in September 2000], I realized that I needed to be out here to see how good I could become.
What did you do in that job?
It wasn’t a suit-and-tie deal. I was figuring out what a fair price would be to pay for some of these companies that may need some help to be able to turn them around. It was learning in a real-world sense – learning some accounting skills that weren’t really taught in school. And then there was a whole lot of networking that was done. It was the first time I really saw business done on the golf course, figuring out with different bankers what companies may be struggling and which companies may be coming on the auction block. It was quite an interesting networking skill, in that certainly what you knew was very important, but who you knew was very important as well. It was a very interesting year.
Could you have been happy doing that for a living?
It still interests me. But I’d rather do something post-golf or dabble during professional golf. It’s something I still think about, and something maybe post-golf that I could revisit and get back into the investment-banking world. But I think if you’re really, really sporty, if you’re into this, then you’ve gotta be able to figure out how good you are.
In this day and age, it’s not a knock to go professional. Back in Bobby Jones’ day, there wasn’t a whole lot else for you. Now, I think it’s a well-perceived job, and I think the coolest thing about the game is that our pay scale is completely based on performance. We have such respect from all the fans because you have to perform to earn a living. There’s no guaranteed contract, no guaranteed money. It’s how America was built – you’ve gotta perform to earn a living. There’s a lot to be proud of when you’re a professional golfer.
How seriously did you consider becoming a career amateur?
I had a couple buddies at Georgia Tech who were tossing around the same idea of possibly staying career amateurs. But you don’t lose anything by turning pro. What you gain is when you’re 40 years old, 50 years old, sitting on your couch watching the guys on TV play, you don’t think, God, that could have been me. That could have been me. You owe it to yourself to give it a try so that you’re not that 40- or 50-year-old sitting on the couch saying, ‘That could have been me!’ Because you know. It either is you or you tried it.
Now those same guys are playing amateur golf and they love it. There’s no shame on them because they spent two years as a professional. They’re just loving the amateur game and playing in all the fun events and have a lot of pride now – not in playing for a paycheck, but trying to put their names up in clubhouses. They take a lot of pride in that.
So I don’t see it as that debatable of a decision. It seems like a very easy decision. You try and then there’s always time to go back as an amateur, or there’s always time to go find a job.
Is it still possible to head into the business world for a few years and then turn pro?
Theoretically, it’s still possible, because guys hit their prime at 30ish. But there were a lot of struggles for me to get on the PGA Tour. Getting out here wasn’t just straight into the winner’s circle – it wasn’t even straight into keeping my card. There aren’t many Jordan Spieths who can make it look easy. Most guys see the Rickie Fowlers and the Jordan Spieths, and since they’ve had two good years of college, they think, I’m an All-American and I can turn pro now. That’s something I would second-guess more than an All-American finishing school and staying amateur if he’s truly good enough to make it out here. There’s no guarantee to come right out and have success on the PGA Tour.
Did you ever waver once you turned pro?
It has crossed a lot of people’s minds at some point. The game beats you up and you say, ‘Hey, I’m not cut out for this.’ There were times, when I missed cut after cut, that I thought, Geez, I might have to get a job. I don’t think I ever really wanted a job, but the game was beating me up to the point where maybe I’d have to get a job because I wasn’t gonna be able to make it as a Tour pro. But I think once you get a taste of it out here, you don’t want to leave.
Is the concept of the career amateur dead?
How do you define career amateur? My buddy that played two years as a pro and is now an amateur? That’s not a career amateur, right? Technically, no, but at 26 he goes back into the amateur game and plays the rest of his days out. I’m sure there are a lot of guys that are late bloomers who go on to be really good amateurs that maybe weren’t great collegiate players – at least not good enough to turn pro – and they said that their path was going to be another way. There’s always going to be a stable of career amateurs. You’re just not going to see the top guys become career amateurs.
Because you want to test yourself and now there’s so much money to be made. It’s the money and the status. In the old days, it was somewhat frowned upon; the amateur was held in higher regard than the professional. That’s completely changed now, particularly when you think of Bobby Jones’ day. He loved the game and stayed amateur, but in today’s world, would Bobby Jones have turned pro? I think it’s a fair question. So you wonder about the lifelong amateurs.
What do you make of the decision that McNealy faces?
I see it as being a pretty simple decision. At least try for a couple of years, and then at 25 or 26, you can easily say, ‘Hey, I’m not cut out for this,’ and you haven’t hurt yourself. You’ve probably met some more contacts that would be useful in the business world. I see it as a pretty easy decision turning pro and at least having a chance to see how good you can be.