Patient Kuchar took the road less traveled to the pros

The smile is on his face whether it's for bogey or birdie, casual round or major championship, friendly wager or life-altering payday. Matt Kuchar cashed in at last year's Honda Classic, earning a big check and securing a spot in the Masters. But the grin would have been just as wide had he won a $2 Nassau.

Kuchar proved long ago it is not about the money, or the fame. He could have had both five years ago when he was the darling of the golf world, an amateur making a run at The Masters and U.S. Open with his dad as caddie.

Instead, he went back to Georgia Tech, even toyed with the idea of following in the footsteps of alum Bobby Jones and remaining an amateur. All the while, he heard the whispers from those who believed he should have cashed in while he could. But even without his victory a year ago, Kuchar said there would have been no regrets.

"The best time of my life,'' is how he describes his college days, even the ones that were filled with too few victories. The national championship he returned for didn't come. Neither did much else. Kuchar failed to repeat as an All-American in his senior season, failed to defend his U.S. Amateur title and had a rather lackluster year.

Then, all around him, he saw other young guns drive by in Brinks trucks. A then-17-year-old Ty Tryon even qualified for the PGA Tour, and here he is skipping classes this week to play alongside Kuchar.

"There is no right way to do this,'' Kuchar said. "I think each case is different. I'm happy for Ty. For me, it was a tough decision. I was very close to turning pro.''

Kuchar, 24, came out of nowhere to win the 1997 U.S. Amateur. That got him into The Masters, where he played the first round in 1998 with defending champion Tiger Woods, and led much of the day. A tie for 21st got him a return invitation. He played in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, and tied for 14th, the best finish by an amateur in some 30 years.

That was when agents started calling. All kinds of numbers were reported. Some estimates had Kuchar potentially earning about $2 million just to turn pro. It wasn't an easy decision.

Kuchar graduated in 2000, but still did not turn pro. He went to work for a money-management firm in South Florida and played golf with clients. The idea of remaining an amateur intrigued him. "What a great life that would be,'' he said. "I thought about winning a few big amateur tournaments, maybe playing in the majors. That's exactly what I was thinking when I took the job.''

But when Kuchar played a lot of golf, the competitive fire grabbed him. He accepted a sponsor's exemption into the 2000 Texas Open, and decided to turn pro a month later. Too late for qualifying school, he began 2001 with no status.

Restricted to seven sponsors exemptions, Kuchar had a second and a third and earned $572,669, securing his card for 2002. Then came the Honda, where he shot a final-round 66, one-putting the last eight greens for a back-nine 31 and a two-shot win over Joey Sindelar. He got a tour exemption through 2004.

Kuchar went on to win over $1 million last season, but after Honda he missed 11 cuts. This year, after tying for 25th at the season-opening Mercedes Championship, he has missed three cuts, taking the last month off.

It's not his style, but if Kuchar wants, he can nonetheless say, "I told you so."

"I never have felt you should make decisions based solely on money,'' he said. "Now maybe they will use me as an example in a positive way. Maybe some kid will decide that he wants to do it like I did it.''

The Big Question
Will LPGA Tour players be asked about anything else than Annika Sorenstam and playing on the PGA Tour?

It's the LPGA's first week, and Sorenstam isn't even playing in Tucson, but she figures to be the topic of discussion anyway.

Five Things to Watch
1. With a depleted field, this might be the week for a first-time winner to break through. So far this season, it's been nothing but veteran players winning. Davis Love III is the only top-10 player entered.

2. Since the Country Club at Mirasol is a new venue, and the Sunset course is a one-time home, nobody can claim an advantage. Or at least not much of one. Familiarity with Bermuda greens will help.

3. Ernie Els is off this week, but the European tour is staying in the Middle East for the Qatar Masters. European Ryder Cuppers Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Phillip Price are among those entered.

4. Finally, the LPGA Tour begins its 2003 schedule -- with the PGA Tour already 10 weeks into its season. Mexico's Lorena Ochoa makes her rookie debut, while Annika Sorenstam rests another week.

5. The Champions Tour moves to California, where after five weeks, a true past "champion" has yet to win a tournament.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com