LOS ANGELES – After weeks of scrutiny that reached a fever pitch this week at the Genesis Open, the words finally came.
“Golf is a game where we call penalties on ourselves,” Matt Kuchar said in a statement. “I should have done that long ago and not let this situation escalate.”
With that, Kuchar finally hit the mark. After smiling his way through a controversy-free career that has now spanned two decades, he put himself in an unnecessary bind – both with how he handled compensation for his fill-in caddie at last year’s Mayakoba Golf Classic and how he handled the public relations firestorm that erupted once those details became public.
In the age of social media, there are few combinations more potent than discussing celebrities and how they spend their money. Regardless of the agreement Kuchar and caddie David “El Tucan” Ortiz reached before the start of the event, in which Kuchar ended a four-year victory drought, the disparity between his winnings ($1.296 million) and his subsequent payment ($5,000) seemed in the court of public opinion to stretch wider than the Gulf of Mexico.
When Kuchar left the 72nd green in Mexico, he appeared blessed with a branding windfall in addition to the Mayakoba trophy: give a piece of the pie to Ortiz, who he called his “lucky charm” that week, and watch the money potentially transform a man’s life. He could have returned this fall as defending champ to be feted as a hero in Playa del Carmen. Instead, he created a mess that he’s struggled to escape ever since.
For Kuchar, this was never a problem with accounting. This was a problem with optics.
That lesson appeared to have finally hit home this week at Riviera Country Club, where Kuchar originally defended his financial arrangement with Ortiz to GolfChannel.com on Wednesday, but issued a statement after the opening-round on Friday, in which he described his comments as “out of touch and insensitive, making a bad situation worse.”
“They made it seem like I was marginalizing David Ortiz and his financial situation, which was not my intention,” he said. “I read them again and cringed.”
The apology, on the whole, struck the right notes. It included his plan to pay Ortiz his requested amount of $50,000 as well as an additional, undisclosed donation to the Mayakoba tournament to be distributed to various charities in the Cancun area.
But those words would have been far more useful had they come from his mouth back in January, when details of his payment to Ortiz first emerged as he was in the process of capturing the Sony Open. They would have still been handy had they come out earlier this week, after Ortiz shared with Golf.com financial specifics and emails he exchanged with Kuchar’s agent.
After Kuchar doubled down by defending his actions on Wednesday, his apology and subsequent payments weren’t helpful. They were required.
Just take a listen around the fairways and greens at Riviera and you would notice that the Hollywood fans had no tolerance for a player with more than $46 million in career earnings sticking to his actuarial guns.
“Go low, Kuch, go low. Just not on the gratuity,” said one fan. Others yelled “10 percent” or “pay the caddie” as Kuchar completed his opening-round 68. If he owned a Twitter account, he might have realized that the critical comments had been flowing his way at a nonstop pace for much of the week.
And things likely weren’t going to get much better next week, when Kuchar ventured back south of the border for the WGC-Mexico Championship. The result is Friday’s statement, one in which he opened his wallet to pay for both past services rendered and public relations damage inflicted.
“My entire Tour career, I have tried to show respect and positivity,” Kuchar said. “In this situation, I have not lived up to those values or to the expectations I’ve set for myself. I let myself, my family, my partners and those close to me down, but I also let David down.”
The perception may linger that Kuchar simply bowed to the pressures of his critics, only meeting Ortiz’s request as a form of damage control. But surely that’s a better light to be cast in than the one shone upon him this week at Riviera, where he was branded with a label that’s tough to shake: cheap.
As he prepares for a return to Mexico, Kuchar likely wants nothing more than for a situation that has dragged on for three months to simply go away. Friday’s direct deposit surely brought some resolution, but only to a PR nightmare that appeared to be entirely avoidable at every turn.