Listen up, world No. 1 amateur Patrick Cantlay. Pay attention, world No. 3 Jordan Spieth. Recently crowned Players champion Matt Kuchar has a message for you.
You guys were toddlers when Kuchar won the U.S. Amateur in 1997. And you probably hadn’t yet picked up a golf club in 1998 when Kuchar, still an amateur, dazzled the world of golf at The Masters and the U.S. Open. So pay attention, and learn a little history.
Kuchar was a sophomore at Georgia Tech when he won the Amateur at Cog Hill in Chicago in 1997, the year after Tiger Woods won it for the third straight time. Kuchar was a pretty good college player at the time, and after he won, he returned to campus life in Atlanta. But what happened in 1998 by virtue of the spoils of victory at Cog Hill changed everything.
Kuchar, then 19 years young, was all over the airwaves at the 1998 Masters, and his 1,000-watt grin captivated golf’s largest television viewing audience. He shot even-par 288, fifth best at the time among amateurs in the history of the tournament. Two months later, he proved that Augusta was no fluke; he challenged for the lead in the third round of the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, and eventually finished 14th, the best finish by an amateur since 1971.
Almost overnight, Kuchar had become white hot. The agents were hovering, and equipment companies were talking millions. With his engaging smile and slightly over-exuberant father on the bag, Kuchar’s clubs spoke volumes while that smile and friendly demeanor charmed millions. Pro success and fame was just a signature away.
Except that Kuchar said “no.” He walked away from it and stayed in school. People shook their heads … they didn’t understand why the kid with big game and a bigger smile would walk from the almighty dollar. He returned for his junior year, and then aborted a plan to turn pro in early January 1999. He graduated on time from Tech, and thought seriously about life as a career amateur. Eventually, he had to know how far his golf could take him, so he left the amateur game. To date, he has won nearly $20 million in his 11-year pro career.
Okay guys, go ahead, avoid the Kuchar lesson and advance your Tiger Woods analogy. Two years at Stanford, you’ll say, and then he began accumulating tour wins and major titles. My editor, however, limits me to just 900 words here, so I cannot list the many can’t-miss prospects who chose the same path and failed. Some found success outside of golf after giving it their all. Others found fulfillment as teaching pros or club jobs, but they don’t travel by private plane or shoot television spots for golf equipment companies. Still others are beating it around one or another mini-tour, living four to a condo and looking for great happy-hour dinner deals, waiting for lightning to strike. Sadly, some will ask you if you want fries with that cheeseburger order. Not many of those who passed on the full college experience are on television on Sunday, much less Thursday or Friday.
You say that the PGA Tour changed the rules of the road, and you have to go now. Unable to peddle the Nationwide Tour to a new sponsor, they reformatted the traditional Q-School avenue, beginning in 2013. So, you think that 2012 is the last clean shot at a Q-School pass to the big leagues, and that pass belongs to you. Except that, on average, only a tiny percentage of players on go right from college to the Tour. You like your odds that much?
So what’s the hurry? The money will always be there, if you are as good as you think you are; the recent 10-year television deals the Tour agreed to assures this. Stay in school, enjoy the journey, and worry about the destination later; there will be plenty of time. Enjoy the last vestiges of youthful freedom – go to a keg party, watch your college football team, take a course in something that fascinates you but will not mean a thing to you in 20 years. Stick around to compete for a U.S Amateur crown, and represent your country while you attempt to bring the Walker Cup back home in 2013.
Maybe you don’t want to listen to Kuchar. After all, he’s only won four times on Tour, and in your heart, you know you are capable of more than that – much more. So, listen instead to Phil Mickelson. He, too, won a U.S. Amateur, in 1990, and he won a PGA Tour event as an amateur, the 1991 Northern Telecom Open in Tucson, when he was a college junior at age 20. He was golf’s next golden boy, destined for greatness. Yet he, too, turned down instant riches to return to Arizona State and finish his college career. And things worked out pretty well for him.
So well, in fact, that on the Monday of Players week, six days before Kuchar won the title, Mickelson entered the World Golf Hall of Fame at age 41.
Listen up, boys. Listen up.