Matt Kuchar is the face of golf in Atlanta this week at the Tour Championship, just like he was 10 years ago.
There’s one difference.
Actually, there’s about 10 million differences.
Kuchar is the No. 1 seed in the FedExCup going into the final playoff event, which starts Thursday at East Lake. That gives him a slight edge in the race for the $10 million bonus, the biggest payoff in golf.
It’s hard to believe that Kuchar, perhaps the most celebrated amateur golfer at Georgia Tech since Bobby Jones, wasn’t even sure he wanted to turn pro when he graduated a decade ago.
He had won the U.S. Amateur. He lit up Augusta National with his engaging smile and a game good enough to be the low amateur at the Masters in 1998. Then came the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where he held his own against golf’s best and tied for 14th.
Not long after that, a businessman tossed out the idea of staying an amateur.
“He said, ‘Nobody has really done it since Bobby Jones. There’s plenty of money to be made in the business world. It’s not that you have to turn professional to make money,”’ Kuchar said. “And he encouraged me to still stay competitive as an amateur. He said, ‘The doors that will open for you will be amazing, and the better you do in golf -- if you keep playing Masters tournaments, if you keep playing well in Amateurs -- it’s only going to open more doors.
“So it was a neat opportunity.”
Kuchar went to work for Liberty Associates, a boutique investment banking firm in south Florida, a job that entailed plenty of golf with prospective clients, a chance to see how business gets done as efficiently on manicured fairways as in boardrooms.
Chasing the amateur dream, however, soon turned into a sprint.
Kuchar played the Texas Open on a sponsor’s exemption in the fall of 2000 and missed the cut by one shot. He was furious with himself and wanted to tee it up the next week to prove he was better than that.
“And it was then that I knew I needed to really go week in and week out to see how good I could be,” he said.
It took him time to find out. He won his first PGA Tour event two years later at the Honda Classic, immediately went into a tailspin and didn’t emerge until hooking up with Chris O’Connell, a Texas-based coach who taught him a one-plane swing that was more about making a consistent swing than a perfect one.
The plan has worked to near perfection.
No one has more than his 11 top-10s on the PGA Tour this year. His consistent play, coupled with a victory at The Barclays, has put him atop the PGA Tour money list for the first time in his career, his first Ryder Cup team and No. 10 in the world ranking.
It’s also his first appearance in the Tour Championship, a big goal for a Georgia Tech alum who used to play East Lake in college.
“It’s definitely been a neat progression,” Kuchar said. “I think I was definitely well-celebrated as an amateur, and it’s fun to take the steps forward. … To make those steps, it’s a very rewarding feeling.”
The timing of the Tour Championship provides one coincidence -- Kuchar, who always has felt at home in Atlanta, is in the process of moving across the state to St. Simons Island.
The memories will stay, particularly his amateur days.
“It seems like coming back from the Masters (in 1998) there was a lot more fanfare,” Kuchar said. “I remember classrooms standing up and applauding. I can remember teachers coming up and congratulating me. The Masters was kind of what seemed like the real significant event to folks from Georgia, folks from Georgia Tech.”
The U.S. Amateur was a big deal in a different way.
There are pictures of Jones returning to Atlanta with the U.S. Amateur trophy, arriving by train, greeted by a host of Atlanta’s finest. A half-dozen people in those pictures were brought back together when Kuchar came home in 1997 with the same trophy, and they put together a mock photo to celebrate the occasion.
Kuchar was told later some in the group had tears in their eyes at the sight of the U.S. Amateur trophy belonging to a Georgia Tech kid.
“It was a very touching moment, and I kind of realized how big of a deal it was,” Kuchar said.
It’s a big deal, now -- a chance to be the FedExCup champion with a $10 million bonus, perhaps enough for him to be voted PGA Tour Player of the Year, with the Vardon Trophy on the line for the lowest scoring average.
Kuchar isn’t alone in his pursuit of the big prize.
The top five in the standings -- Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Charley Hoffman, Steve Stricker and Paul Casey -- determine their own fate. If they win the Tour Championship, they win the FedExCup. Everyone else from No. 6 to No. 30 needs help to win.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson is No. 10, having slipped in the standings with mediocre results in the playoffs. He still has a chance, and can get more than money. A victory would make him No. 1 in the world for the first time, and considering his Masters victory in April, make him the favorite for Player of the Year. For all he has done in his career, Mickelson has never won any top awards.
He has never had a better chance than now -- on a course where he is defending champion, with Tiger Woods not around because the world’s No. 1 player didn’t qualify.