ARDMORE, Pa. — He was the smiling kid with his dad on the bag in his first U.S. Open, eager to be himself and not the guy he was following.
Matt Kuchar never expected to be the next Tiger Woods, mostly because even then he knew it wasn’t possible. Winning the U.S. Amateur a year after Woods recorded his third straight amateur title got him into the 1998 Open, but it would be a long time before the two were in the same conversation again.
“I was never thinking because I won the amateur the year after Tiger that I was the next Tiger Woods,” Kuchar said. “That was never something that I thought about or thought I was going to follow the same path as Tiger. I knew I had a different path that was for me.”
That path was rocky at times, but Kuchar never lost faith in his talent. He rebuilt his swing, found his way back on the PGA Tour after a brief hiccup, and started contending in tournaments.
Now he’s in another conversation this week at Merion Golf Club. He’s joined a select few as perhaps the best player who hasn’t won a major championship.
“I don’t know that I’m quite in that talk yet,” Kuchar said Wednesday. “I know that a lot of people have been yelling out that they have got me in their pools and they’re picking me this week. But we hear a lot of that talk every week.”
Perhaps Kuchar should start listening more. Coming off a win two weeks ago at Memorial — where his young son got a high five from host Jack Nicklaus when Kuchar won — he’s high on a lot of lists as a possible winner at this Open.
That he’s not shying away from the talk says something about how confident he is about his game.
“I feel like I’m playing some good golf,” Kuchar said. “I’m looking to continue to play good golf. Certainly a major championship, a U.S. Open, is one I’m geared up for. I’m looking forward to competing and trying to put my name on this trophy.”
Kuchar was still an amateur when he played his first U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1998. His father — who drew some criticism for his exuberance — was carrying his bag and on Sunday it was both Father’s Day and the golfer’s 20th birthday
Fans sang Happy Birthday to him and yelled “Happy Father’s Day” to his father as they walked to tees, but the real highlight was a 14th place finish. It paid no money but showed Kuchar that he could compete with players a level above him.
Three years later he was a regular on the PGA Tour, making $500,000 in his rookie year. The next year he won the Honda Classic, giving him a two-year exemption on tour and marking him as one of the rising stars of the game.
Then it all started to fall apart. Kuchar began missing cuts with regularity, finally ending up in golf’s minor leagues — what was then the Nationwide Tour — while he retooled his game and tried to find a swing that worked as well as the swings of players who were on the big circuit.
“I think that out here there was a definite learning curve on the PGA Tour of just being comfortable standing on the range, hitting balls next to Ernie Els or Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson and not just being in awe,” ‘Kuchar said. “And trying to say, ‘Well, I can’t hit it like that, what do I need to do to hit it like that?’ ‘’
He was a tennis player who took up golf when his mother upgraded their membership at a country club as a Christmas present. Playing better was never an issue since he quickly became one of the top — and finally THE top — amateur in the country.
Coming back on tour in 2007 he played well enough to keep his card, though barely. The next year he won $1.5 million, and the next year cracked the top 25.
Kuchar has already won twice this year, at the Match Play Championship and the Memorial, his sixth career win. He’s moved to No. 4 in the world golf rankings, and hasn’t missed a cut all year while averaging 69.84 strokes a round.
He’s a ball striker who rarely makes mistakes, and a putter who excels on fast greens, a combination that has oddsmakers and fans lining the fairways at Merion thinking he has a good shot to win his first major this week.
“I think (the) great thing about the game of golf is there’s no clear-cut favorites,” Kuchar said.