THE TIPPING STORY WHICH IS IT: AND THE IMAGE OF MR. NICE GUY OR MATT KUCHAR EL CHEAPO?
Photo by Nathaniel Welch
Matt Kuchar stood just inside the glass doors leading from the clubhouse of the Sea Island Golf Club to the putting green.
It was a week before Christmas in Georgia, and Kuchar's 11-year-old son, Cameron, was working his way through the putting course that snakes around the green. Kuchar's smile could not have been wider.
“I love the fact that both my kids love to play,” he said. “I've never pushed them to play or to practice. When they ask me to play or go to the range, I go. But it's their call when we go, and their call how long we stay.”
Inside the clubhouse, Kuchar's wife, Sybi, glanced at her watch. Cameron had a dentist appointment, and Matt's teacher, Chris O'Connell, was on his way from the airport to spend some time with him before the holidays. The Kuchars' younger son, 9-year-old Carson, was playing tennis with Sybi's parents.
Life in Kuchar World was hectic, but clearly happy.
“I've been unbelievably lucky to be able to build the life we have,” Kuchar had said earlier that morning. “This has been a perfect place for us to raise our family, and it's been great for me as a place to play and practice when I'm not on tour. I don't think I could ask for anything more than that.”
That was Kuchar's public persona: the devoted family man who behaves with grace and style in victory and defeat.
But that image took a massive hit in February when Kuchar became embroiled in what was arguably the first real controversy of his career. It started the previous November with a victory—an important one. Kuchar hadn't won on the PGA Tour in more than four years, and, having turned 40 in June, he had genuine worries about how much golf he had left.
As he often does, Kuchar decided to combine playing in a tournament with a family vacation, bringing Sybi and the boys with him to the Mayakoba Classic. He gave John Wood, his regular caddie, the week off and hired a local caddie, David Ortiz, for the tournament.
Tour caddies get paid a flat fee when a player misses a cut—it varies depending on the length of the relationship—and, typically, get 5 percent of what a player makes when he makes a cut; 7 percent for a top-10 finish and 10 percent for a win.
Kuchar and Ortiz agreed on $1,000 for the week, $2,000 for a made cut, $3,000 for a top 20 and $4,000 for a top 10. But Kuchar won—meaning he collected almost $1.3 million. Had Wood been on the bag, he would have received about $130,000. Kuchar gave Ortiz a $1,000 bonus, paying him $5,000.
Then word got out that Kuchar had paid Ortiz only $3,000. Kuchar said that wasn't true, adding he had paid Ortiz more than that, but less than 10 percent.
Ortiz and a businessman he had looped for at Mayakoba released a letter Ortiz had sent to Mark Steinberg, Kuchar's agent, asking for another $45,000. The initial email said that Steinberg, on Kuchar's behalf, had offered an additional $15,000. “It was actually an additional $20,000,” Kuchar said. “It was rejected. That's when I got stubborn.”
When Kuchar was asked about the story at Riviera, he brushed it off, saying that as far as he was concerned, “this is over.”
It was far from over. To most people, Kuchar was acting like the typical spoiled, insensitive, rich 1-percenter.
“When I heard that my grandmother was being forwarded stories about what a bad guy I had been,” Kuchar says, “I knew I had to rethink.”
Kuchar talked to a number of friends he trusts—some in golf, some not. “I've always admired people who are willing to take the blame,” he says. “I realized I'd shied away from it, and that didn't feel right.
“What happened was, I won a golf tournament and made a lot of money. In a situation like that, you want both sides to win. David hadn't won financially. I decided the thing to do was take the blame and make sure David won financially. As soon as I made that decision, I felt better. I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Photo by Nathaniel Welch
He put out a lengthy statement apologizing for the entire incident. “I was disappointed in myself,” Kuchar told me after returning home from the WGC event in Mexico City, confirming an additional payment of $45,000 to Ortiz. “This was the first time I acted in a way that wasn't the way I wanted to be looked at or thought of by people. It was time to stand up and say, ‘I messed up.’ ”
Kuchar and Ortiz spent time together before the third round of the tournament in Mexico City, and Kuchar says the fan response he got during the tournament was overwhelmingly positive. Kuchar knows, though, that there will be some who don't want to let it go. “I can't say it's over, it's behind me,” he says. “I got all sorts of media requests to talk about it in Mexico, and I'm talking to you about it now. But at least now I feel like I did the right thing, even if it took me a while to get there.”
Who, then, is Matthew Gregory Kuchar?
Zach Johnson, one of Kuchar's closest friends and a Sea Island neighbor, says “There is no one on the PGA Tour whose image is more different than who he really is than Matt Kuchar.”
That isn't a reference to the Ortiz incident. And no, Kuchar isn't like David Simms, the character in “Tin Cup,” whose pristine image hid the fact that he didn't like children or old people.
But there's very much a little bit of the devil in him.
“I think it comes from my father's side of the family,” he says. “Whenever my dad and his family get together, there's usually a lot of joking and pranking going on.”
“Put it this way,” says Jim Furyk, who selected Kuchar as a vice captain for last year's Ryder Cup team. “To be in a room with a lot of people and know there's one guy Phil Mickelson will not take on when it comes to giving people a hard time—and know it's Kooch—should tell you all you need to know. Phil thinks he's the king, except for Kooch. He owns Mickelson to the point where Phil just gave up.”
‘AT LEAST NOW I FEEL LIKE I DID THE RIGHT THING, EVEN IF IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO GET THERE.’
It isn't just one-liners. Kuchar works at his humor. In 2013, on the night before the Presidents Cup began, the other 11 American players and captain Fred Couples walked into the team room and found large “fathead” images of each of them on the walls of the room. Each photo had a T-shirt that went with it, but they were jumbled so that the players had to guess which shirt went with each image.
“The funniest one was Tiger's,” says Davis Love III, an assistant captain on that team. “It had the word ‘TEAM’ across the front, and in the middle of it was a red ‘I.’ Underneath, it said, ‘There is an ‘I' in team.’ Everyone, including Tiger, broke up.”
Despite four Ryder Cup appearances and nine PGA Tour victories, Kuchar's journey is a good deal different from that of the typical multimillionaire PGA Tour player.
Yes, he was a star growing up in Florida, highly recruited as a golfer, choosing Georgia Tech, in part because the golf team had access to a number of top courses, but also because he thought it would be a good place to prepare for the business world if he didn't become a professional golfer.
His path changed when he won the U.S. Amateur in the summer of 1997 after his freshman year. The thought of winning the Amateur the first time he played in it had never really occurred to him.
“When I got to the semis, the other three guys were Randy Leen, Joel Kribel and Brad Elder,” Kuchar says. “All three of them had just played on the Walker Cup team a week earlier. I knew I wasn't in their class.”
Kuchar remembers being so jumpy the morning of his semifinal against Leen that he couldn't eat a bite. “Never been more nervous in my life,” he says. “I knew the implications of the day. If I won, I'd be in the Masters. I was terrified.”
He was so terrified that “somehow”—his word—he birdied four of the first five holes and won, 6 and 5. The next day, in the 36-hole final, he built a big lead on Kribel and hung on to win, 2 and 1.
That meant two months before turning 20, he would tee it up on the first day of the 1998 Masters with the defending champion: Eldrick (Tiger) Woods.
“OK, I might have been just as nervous that morning,” Kuchar says. “I still remember walking through this wall of people from the putting green to the first tee. Tiger went first, and of course, the place went nuts for him. I figured I'd sneak on the tee behind him and get two claps. But I got a huge cheer. I was very happy when I was able to get my tee in the ground without falling over.”
Kuchar shot 72 that day (Woods shot 71) and finished T-21 with his dad on the bag. Then he finished T-14 at the U.S. Open. By then, corporate America was lining up to make him rich as soon as he turned pro, presumably right after the British Open. Except Kuchar didn't turn pro. He went back to Georgia Tech for his junior year.
“I talked to a lot of [players], and most of them said, ‘Yeah, strike while the iron is hot. You're definitely ready to play out here.’ But I played a practice round at the British with Payne Stewart and Paul Azinger, and Payne said to me, ‘You can play out here for 25 years, but you'll never get back your last two years of college.’ That resonated with me.”
After Kuchar graduated with his degree in business in the spring of 2000, people were stunned when he bypassed the tour to work for a boutique investment firm run by Joe Wortley in Boca Raton, Fla.
“He had this idea that I could follow the Bobby Jones amateur model,” Kuchar says. “Stay amateur, but still play golf and build a life off the course. I was intrigued. Bobby Jones had gone to Georgia Tech, and I thought it might be cool to be good enough to get back into the Masters as an amateur; maybe play half-a-dozen tour events a year and play golf with clients.”
He smiles. “Lasted less than a year.”
The tipping point came when he missed the cut by one at the Texas Open in September 2000 and was dying to play the next week but couldn't because he didn't have another sponsor's exemption. He decided he had to find out how good he could become if he played golf for a living.
The quick answer: very good. In March 2002, he won the Honda Classic. He was only 23 and on his way.
“Little did I know, I wouldn't win again for seven years,” he says, laughing. “Seven years! That was a long time. Of course, a lot happened during those seven years. Some of it good/great. Some of it not as good.”
The great was his courtship of Sybi Parker, whom he had met at Georgia Tech. Sybi was a tennis player, and the two became friends when the school's jocks would go to “athlete bars” in Buckhead. “We all tended to hang out together,” Kuchar says. “We always liked one another, but it never went beyond that in college. We were both focused on moving our lives along.”
After graduation, Sybi moved to San Francisco to teach tennis. In 2002, Matt invited her to come to Pebble Beach to see him play.
That didn't work out very well. Sybi brought her boyfriend, and the two searched for Matt at Pebble Beach. He was playing at Poppy Hills.
“They didn't realize the tournament was on three courses, because it says Pebble Beach in the name,” Matt says. “They spent an hour wandering around Pebble looking for me before the boyfriend said, ‘Let's get out of here.’ ”
Matt and Sybi saw one another that fall at Georgia Tech's homecoming football game. By then, the boyfriend was no more, and Sybi was moving back to Atlanta. Soon after, Matt asked her to come to the Shark Shootout. She accepted. Less than a year later, they were married.
Cameron came along in 2007, and Carson in 2009. The family moved to Sea Island, where Sybi had spent much of her childhood. “Great place to live,” Matt says. “Plus, grandparents right nearby. Perfect.”
SAVED FROM A LONG SLUMP
Kuchar's career wasn't nearly as perfect. Putting had always been his strength, but when he began to struggle with his ball-striking, his putting also went downhill. “When you think you have to make every putt, you don't putt as well,” he says. “I'd always been a good putter—now I had to be great just to have a chance.”
Early in 2006, back on the Nationwide Tour, college teammate Matt Weibring told Kuchar he should see teacher Chris O'Connell outside Dallas. Kuchar was open to almost anything at that point.
O'Connell suggested that Kuchar do something completely counterintuitive: aim right to hit the fade he liked to play. Kuchar, naturally, had always aimed left.
“At first it felt really awkward,” he says. “I was aiming right and trying to start the ball left and fade it. It was as if I was hitting a pull/cut. It makes no sense, but it worked. The more often I hit a good shot that way, the less awkward I felt.”
Armed with his flatter-looking swing, Kuchar won a Nationwide event in 2006 and was back on the big tour in 2007. He has never come close to leaving since then.
“After I got back to the tour, I played solidly for three years, but the win at Turning Stone [late in 2009] was a huge breakthrough for me,” Kuchar says. “I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever win again.”
He won the first playoff event the next year and earned $4.9 million overall—first on the money list. More important, he made his first Ryder Cup team.
From there, he won the Players Championship in 2012, the WGC-Match Play in 2013 and the Memorial later that year. He contended consistently in majors but never had a serious chance to win until the Open Championship at Birkdale in 2017. On that Sunday, paired in the final group with Jordan Spieth, Kuchar rallied to a share of the lead with six holes to go.
“I knew I had a real chance,” Kuchar says. “After he hit his drive on 13, I think I thought, This is my day. I'm going to win.”
But Spieth made a miraculous bogey and then went birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie.
After the two men holed out on 18 and embraced, Kuchar was stunned by what he saw next: Sybi, Cameron and Carson were behind the green waiting for him. With Matt in contention on Friday, Sybi decided to fly to England to be there on Sunday. “I thought that if he won, we absolutely wanted to be there to share it with him,” she said. “If he didn't win, he would need us there.”
They stayed in their hotel room until the last few holes—Sybi didn't want Matt distracted by their sudden presence and was worried that the two boys might be over-enthusiastic cheering for their dad. “They both love Jordan,” she says, “but not that day.”
After the awards ceremony, Kuchar went to speak to the media, bringing the boys with him. As they walked out of the media center, they encountered Spieth, carrying the claret jug. At Kuchar's request, Spieth showed the boys where his name was engraved on the trophy. Then Spieth bent down and told the two boys how proud they should be of their father: “Not because he's a great golfer, but because he's a great person and a great dad.”
Kuchar admits that Birkdale might have haunted him just a bit last year. He missed making the Ryder Cup team for the first time since 2008, although Furyk asked him to be a vice captain in the same phone call in which he told him he wasn't picking him for the team.
“I would have loved to have had him on the team,” Furyk says, “but the guys I picked were playing so well, I had to pick them. Plus, Matt hadn't had a Matt Kuchar-type year.”
Kuchar knew that. And his 40th birthday affected him more than he thought it would. “Maybe it was just because I wasn't playing that well, but I was very aware of it,” he says. “I've never hit the ball that far, and the kids today hit it so far, and they're so talented, I wondered if I could still compete in my 40s.”
No one was more surprised by Matt's reaction than the person who knows him best. “It's just not like him,” Sybi says. “He's usually so optimistic about things because he's always known that he'll find a way to play better. I never doubted that he would.”
“Golf beats you up a lot,” Kuchar says. “I think we all understand that. But when you don't play well for a while and you turn 40, you worry.”
But two months after Mayakoba, on another family vacation, Kuchar won in Hawaii by four shots. He'd survived his mid-life golf crisis. And now he's figured out—better late than never—how to right a wrong.