Kuchar Q&A: Unusual path from elite am to elite pro

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 14, 2016, 11:40 am

Over the past 16 years, Matt Kuchar has won seven times on the PGA Tour, finished in the top 10 in 23 percent of his starts and banked more than $37.5 million in earnings.

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.

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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.

Why not?

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.

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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.

1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.

4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.

7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”

Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  

Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.

The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Web.com Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.