There were times when he was closing in on his blazing, bronze-medal-earning final round of 63 at the Rio Olympics that memories of his grandfather crept into Matt Kuchar’s mind.
Maurice (pronounced “Morris”) Kuchar died at 90 in March. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and found a home in New Hampshire. His father, Peter, washed front-door windows in Manchester. Maurice went to the University of New Hampshire on a football scholarship, starting on the offensive line of a team that went 6-0 before losing the Glass Bowl in 1947. After graduating from UNH, Maurice had a long and successful career at General Motors Acceptance Corporation.
Everybody called him Big Kooch. At 6-foot-4, he passed down some of the family’s athletic genes to his son Peter, who became a tennis pro who would raise Matt in a competitive athletic environment in Florida. The hand-eye and clutch skills that were honed paid off for Matt, who in addition to the 1997 U.S. Amateur has won seven times on the PGA Tour.
Big Kooch and Little Kooch, who also grew to be 6-4, were exceptionally close. The family had a place on a lake in New Hampshire where they would go on summer vacations. Maurice and his grandson would spend hours playing gin rummy together.
“The pride my grandfather had in just being an American showed through very strongly,” Kuchar said of his experience in Rio. “It was almost to the point where it brought me to tears. I was overcome a few times and had to re-gather myself.”
Kuchar kept it together on the Olympic Golf Course and flew home on Aug. 15 to a hero’s welcome. There were more than 100 people greeting his plane when it landed at Malcolm McKinnon Airport on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Chants of “Kooch!” and “USA, USA!” rang into the night when the Olympian appeared at the door of the plane, wearing his bronze medal.
If only Big Kooch had been around to see it, as he was when Matt won the Players Championship in 2012 and the WGC-Match Play and the Memorial in 2013. Or if he could see his great-grandsons, Cameron and Carson, show off his dad’s medal last week on St. Simons Island, whether it was going table to table at the local Starbucks or the grillroom at Frederica Golf Club.
“They got a big kick out of doing that,” Kuchar said. “They love checking it out, showing it off. I’ve pretty much kept it with me wherever I’ve gone. Most people want to see it and hold it.”
The arrival party continued on through the week as Kuchar unpacked and repacked for a trip to Long Island and the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs at the Barclays. He shipped off the Olympic swag to his father, who wore it to dinner in Ponte Vedra with the yellow shoes that his son wore on the medal podium in Rio de Janeiro.
Matt is taking his Olympic bronze with him to Bethpage Black and treating it like gold. Although he says it’s hard to equate what his accomplishment in Rio means in golf terms, the 38-year-old calls it a career-defining moment. Certainly it was easy to grasp the thrill of being an Olympian representing not only your country, but your family’s unique heritage.
“I can tell you this,” Kuchar said. “I’ve never had so many people congratulate me for a third-place finish.”
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Aug. 22, 2016 issue of Golf World.