ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Matt Kuchar has won six PGA TOUR titles and is one of the world's top 10 players, but he was the underdog as he worked his way through the match-play bracket at the 1997 U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill Golf Club in Lemont, Ill.
"If I bet a buck on me, I would have won a ton of money, let me tell you that," he said shortly after beating Joel Kribel, 2 and 1, in the championship match.
Almost 17 years later, Kuchar can count THE PLAYERS Championship (2012) and World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship (2013) among his half-dozen TOUR victories. He beat Hunter Mahan, 2 and 1, in the final match of last year's Accenture Match Play. Kuchar has a 15-3 record in the tournament, having advanced to at least the quarterfinals in each of the past three years.
It's fitting that his first World Golf Championship victory came in a format that has defined his career. The U.S. Amateur was Kuchar's first national exposure in what would become one of the most celebrated, and scrutinized, amateur careers in recent history. How many amateur golfers are interviewed by Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show?"
Tiger Woods raised the Amateur's profile tremendously with three consecutive victories from 1994-96. The tournament was a coronation to Woods' amateur career. His dominance portended professional success. He turned pro the week after his third Amateur victory and won the Masters mere months later.
Woods' instant success increased the expectations placed on ensuing Amateur champions. Kuchar was the first to win after Woods, and soon was making the cut at the Masters and contending on the weekend at the U.S. Open. His strong play and his wide, gums-bearing grin made him a favorite of the galleries and TV cameras.
Kuchar was not yet a recognizable name when he arrived at Cog Hill, though. He was portrayed in the television broadcast as an unknown in a field of future stars. "Matt Kuchar represented the long-shot hopes of thousands around the country as he reached the finals," Dick Enberg said during the telecast of the final match.
Kuchar, then 19, had recently completed his freshman season at Georgia Tech. He was making his U.S. Amateur debut, and was unaccustomed to the cameras and announcers associated with the event's national broadcast.
His match with Stanford's Kribel was a David vs. Goliath affair, only Kuchar was playing the role of the undersized shepherd. He was a skinny 6-foot-4 and a relatively short hitter for his size.
Approximately a year earlier, his lack of length caused him to question whether he was cut out for college golf. He had to hit fairway woods into several par-4s in his collegiate debut, his college coach, Bruce Heppler, recalled. Kuchar grew stronger during his first season at Georgia Tech, though. After his auspicious start, he won two tournaments and earned third-team All-American honors as a freshman.
Kribel was one of the college game's top prospects.
He'd advanced to the semifinals at the previous year's Amateur before losing to Woods, his Stanford teammate, in the semifinals. Kribel was a four-time All-American and member of the United States' 1997 Walker Cup team, which beat Great Britain & Irelande in the Ryder Cup-style competition just a week before the U.S. Amateur began.
"Joel Kribel was expected to be here. This week's longshot has been Matt Kuchar, only 19. Just another unknown face in a sea of hopefuls a week ago," Enberg said.
Kuchar's confidence had grown throughout the tournament, though. The U.S. Amateur is a week-long affair; two rounds of stroke play precede six rounds of match play. Kuchar's father/caddie, Peter, remembers their smoky hotel room becoming more and more tolerable as the week progressed. "We had the windows open all the time to get the smoke out," Peter said. The hotel lobby was less crowded each morning, as the 312-man field was pared to a 64-man, match-play bracket that grew smaller with each day.
"Breakfast was mobbed (at the start of the week). By Friday, we'd walk in and we were the only ones there," Peter said.
The attention grew as the field shrank. "This is beyond my belief. ... (It's) almost like 'Tin Cup'," Kuchar said after his quarterfinal match. "Roger Maltbie is talking about (my) lie and whatnot. It was pretty cool." Kuchar also met NBC announcer Johnny Miller that morning. Nearly 16 years later, Maltbie and Miller called Kuchar's Accenture Match Play victory for NBC Sports.
Kuchar was the only semifinalist who hadn't represented the United States at the recent Walker Cup. He easily won his semifinal match over Indiana's Randy Leen, 6 and 5, though.
"There was a tremendous amount of growth between when the tournament started and when he got to the final," Heppler said. "He may have been a little bit of a surprise, but by the time he got to the semis and the final, he thought he could win the tournament. When he teed it up Sunday morning, he had no doubt he could beat (Kribel)."
Kuchar made bogey on two of the first three holes to fall 2 down in the 36-hole final. He won the par-5 fifth hole with an important two-putt birdie, though. He had to make a 10-foot putt to win the hole after leaving his 40-foot eagle putt short. "That was a momentum shifter," Peter said. Matt won the next hole to square the match.
Kuchar birdied Nos. 12-14 to take a three-up lead. "The dream trip continues for the smiling young man from the Orlando area," Enberg remarked on the broadcast after Kuchar made a 20-foot birdie putt at the 14th.
He was still 3 up after 18 holes. In the afternoon round, Kuchar took a 4-up lead with a par at the par-4 fourth hole. He was 7 up after winning Nos. 6-8. That's when Kribel started to make a run. He won five of the next seven holes, three of them with birdies. Kuchar was only 2 up with three holes remaining.
Peter Kuchar, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, started thinking about his beloved team's collapses with champonships on the line. Matt recently said, "I was really nervous, as nervous as I recall ever being."
He was dormie on No. 17. Kribel teed off first, pushing his tee shot well right into the trees, while Kuchar found the fairway. Kribel hit a sharp cut shot from deep in the trees that ended up 15 feet from the hole. "You could give me a large bucket and I couldn't do a whole lot better," Kribel said in a post-round interview."I got luck there to thread it through the trees."
Kuchar's approach shot with a wedge stopped 10 feet from the hole. "I couldn't even swallow and he hit it to 10 feet," Peter said. When Kribel missed his birdie putt, Kuchar only had to two-putt to win. He did.
The following months and years have been well-documented. Kuchar played with Woods, the defending Masters champion, at Augusta National in 1998. Kuchar trailed him by just one shot, 71-72, after the first round, eventually finishing T-21, which was good enough to earn another Masters invitation.
Kuchar contended on the weekend at the U.S. Open in June before finishing 14th. After his impressive performances, he faced intense scrutiny over his decision to remain amateur and bypass millions of dollars in endorsements. He played his first PGA TOUR event as a pro in January 2001 and won his first TOUR title the following year, but soon struggled and had to return to the Web.com Tour in 2006. He rebuilt his game there, and won again on the PGA TOUR in 2009. He's claimed five TOUR titles since '09.
It's been a circuitous route to the game's upper echelon, and it all started with the U.S. Amateur.
Peter Kuchar puts it best. "The U.S. Amateur absolutely changed his life," he said.