This golf thing is as fickle as any other democracy. Matt Kuchar has known that to be true since he first started keeping score.
But at 40 now, nearly two decades a professional after leaving Georgia Tech, he has just this season learned something else about life on the course. That the popularity thing that comes with playing golf is likewise fleeting. Doesn’t matter the years a man invests in holding a smile like a billboard ad for teeth whitening. Doesn’t matter being as generally genial as a Wal-Mart greeter. It can all pivot on the axis of one stupid move.
When Kuchar cheaped out on his fill-in local caddie after winning a big tournament — and nearly $1.2 million — in Mexico in November, and the details became public, he suddenly was the bad guy. At least as much the bad guy as pro golfers ever get.
Sticking to a pre-tournament agreement with a local looper David “El Tucan” Ortiz, Kuchar paid him $5,000, even after winning and making seven figures for the week. Tour caddies can take home as much as 10 percent of a player’s earnings. This represented a miserly 0.38 percent return on Kuchar’s earnings.
The tone-deaf reactions of Kuchar and his camp immediately afterward didn’t help, either. There were statements shrugging off the story, declaring that $5,000 was a good week for a fellow in Ortiz’s position and that Kuchar was hardly losing any sleep over the slight.
It was all penny-wise and PR-foolish. It was the kind of an act confirming every class-related notion about rich guys and the game they play. Suddenly one of the PGA Tour’s most likable players turned into Judge Smails right before our very eyes.
Kuchar eventually agreed to pay Ortiz $50,000, but the damage to his image had already been done.
Playing on was the easy part, and Kuchar, the current FedEx Cup points leader continued to do that very well. “It’s easy to focus on the play when you’re inside the ropes. You have a shot over water and it’s a demanding shot, it’s easy to kind of go into whatever zone it is and drown everything out,” he said.
But, he added, “The other stuff, the negative feelings, has been completely different to me. Never have I had people holler out anything other than my last name. It’s been, um, different.”
At the Genesis Open in L.A. in February, the usual good-natured cries of “Koooooch!” from the gallery were on occasion replaced by another. “Mooooooch!” a few improvised.
It was reported that one fan yelled out: “Go low, Kooch, go low. Just not on the gratuity.”
Another wore a jacket with “Kuchar 0.38” painted on the back. Still another reportedly yelled, “Go Kooch! Don’t worry, I always root for the villain!”
All this was completely outside anything experienced by the player who gained world notice as a Tech amateur lighting up the Masters in 1998 with a joy and an energy and a 21st-place finish. That vision of an easygoing, always-smiling player followed him through the next 19 years while he was winning nine times on the PGA Tour and earning more than $48 million. Then overnight he became the multi-millionaire quibbling over a few thousand dollars with a guy who had done the heavy lifting during a huge payday.
Paul Azinger watched all this unfold from the sidelines as one of the more outspoken TV analysts out there.
And was surprised and disappointed.
“I know he wants to let it die, and I’m sure he wishes he would have (initially) paid the caddie more,” Azinger said. “He should have paid the caddie right, up front. I never underpaid my caddies, ever. Because they needed the money, that’s the way I looked at it. I know he wishes he would have done that differently.
“Kooch is such a good guy, I kinda want to take lumps for him. But you can’t — just let him take his own lumps on that one,” Azinger said.
Masters week is a good time to put all bad feelings aside because, well, no one gets jeered at Augusta National (OK, maybe Ian Woosnam, once, a long time ago in a most minor way). They take politeness to extremes here and have turned civility into a tradition. Having played his college golf at Bobby Jones’ school and living in Georgia (St. Simons Island) doesn’t hurt Kuchar’s rep around this track, either.
Kuchar can expect nothing but warmth here. And, Azinger said, he should expect no long-range fallout from the Mexico affair. “He still will be (a popular player). And I don’t think it’s going to affect him,” he said.
It won’t hurt his standing, either, that Kuchar may be playing as well as he ever has entering this tournament. He has two victories this season and a second in World match play two weeks ago.
But he knows in his heart that guarantees nothing this week.
“Anyone who has played has had a great day on Thursday and goes to course Friday and said, ‘What happened?’” Kuchar said. “I think I understand the game I play – it’s not something that you own. Because I won in January doesn’t mean I’m going to win in April. There is still a lot of work to do.”
But he’s feeling it.
“I’m 40 now. I still feel like I’m 26. I still feel young, like there’s an excitement for each event — particularly Augusta and the Masters tournament.
“I’ve had a few close encounters (three top-5 Masters finishes since 2012), and I feel my game has continued to improve. I feel like this is as good as I’ve been. I hope to make a good run. If I continue my good play, I certainly can be in contention. I don’t show up just thinking I’ll make a cut and have a nice week. I show up with greater intentions than that.”
However he plays, cries of “Kooooch” will echo through the pines — no variations on that theme allowed. Because anything else just wouldn’t be Masters-ly.
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