My Shot: Matt Kuchar
Matt Kuchar on trash talking with Phil, watching Andre Agassi put on a show, hitting the pool against Michael Phelps, and applying a zinger at the family footrace
MY GOLF MEMORY is horrible. A couple of years ago I was playing Riviera, and on the eighth hole—I think it's the eighth—I drove my ball into the gully of the split-fairway hole. I'm mad. I told my caddie, Lance Bennett, "I can't believe I did that. I've never done that before." Lance says, "Dude, you drove it in the gully last year." I had no recollection of it at all. I'm helpless in post-round, hole-by-hole interviews. I can't take you through most of the holes of winning the Players Championship, the U.S. Amateur or Ryder Cup matches. It's like golf amnesia.
I PLAYED THE FIRST ROUND of my first Masters, in 1998, as U.S. Amateur champion. I was paired with Tiger, the defending champion, and on the first hole I could barely place my ball on the tee. I was practically paralyzed with fear. I did well. [Kuchar shot 72 and was low amateur that week, and he has finishes of T-3 and T-8 the past two years.] Nothing since then has come close, fear-wise, to what I felt that day. When I played my first Ryder Cup, in 2010, I was warned that the first-tee jitters can be so bad that players in the alternate-shot sometimes break their strategy and ask their partner to hit first because they're too nervous. Maybe it was the fact it was in Wales and not the U.S., or maybe it was the terrible weather, but I didn't get that nervous. It surprised me.
THAT FIRST MASTERS, Phil Mickelson invited me to play a practice round with him. As we're walking along, he compliments me on a belt I'm wearing. I return the compliment—he's wearing this beautiful pair of alligator shoes. I ask him, "Do you travel with a waterproof pair, in case it rains?" Phil looks at me, sort of rolls his eyes and says, "Matt, let me ask you a question: If it were raining, what would you rather be, a cow or an alligator?" I'm pretty sure that once an alligator hide is tanned, it's more like ordinary leather. But stories like that are why I love Phil Mickelson.
LATER THAT SUMMER, while playing the British Open at Royal Birkdale, I met Payne Stewart. There had been a lot of pull on me to turn pro. Sponsors and endorsements were there, people I respected were pushing me in that direction, and I was close to pulling the trigger. Payne said, "Matt, you have only four years of college. Stay where you are. The PGA Tour will always be there." That was a big influence on my decision to stay an amateur. I didn't turn pro until 2000.
A LOT OF TOUR PLAYERS like to trash talk, and I'm in that group. I have a slight advantage because I'm considered a nice guy, so when I throw a dig out there, it's unexpected and makes it hard for the other guy to come up with a good comeback. That's one secret. Another is, if you're going to trash talk, you'd better be able to take it in return. There's the "Seinfeld" episode where George Costanza is flustered by the guy who says, "Hey, George, the ocean called; they're running out of shrimp." If you're like George and can't think of the comebacker until later—"Well, the jerk store called; they're running out of you"—you're dead. On the ninth hole at Firestone last year, Phil bombed his drive well over a crest in the fairway. I hit it directly into the hill. I'm just not long enough to get it over. And Phil says in this cloying voice, "Cute drive, Matt." I replied straight out, "I just can't get it over Sissy Hill. Just not long enough." Phil gets flustered and says, "See! That's why I can't trash talk you. You have no shame."
SO MANY GOLFERS will tell you that you have to step on your opponent's neck when you have him down. But I'll confess something. I like to challenge myself. There are not many guys on tour who can give me a challenge in Ping-Pong. So I'll throw some points to see if I can come back. I'll let the score get to 18-15, their lead, or close to it, and see if I can still win. There are a couple guys on tour who have wins over me this way, but I never tell them what I've done.
I ALMOST didn't turn pro at all. I was tempted to be a career amateur. I worked as an investment banker for nine months after I got out of school, and the money was fantastic and promised to get even more lucrative. There's a lot of money to be made on the PGA Tour, but even more on Wall Street. But a funny thing happened. I played one tour event in 2000, the Texas Open. I got in on a sponsor's exemption and missed the cut. When I came off the green, all I could think of was, I wish I were playing next week. I KNOW I can do this. I loved investment banking, but it didn't consume my thoughts the way golf did after missing that cut.