SOUTHPORT, England (AP) The smile is still there, and so is the week-in, week-out consistency that has made Matt Kuchar a very rich man.
He’s also got an Olympic medal, though tellingly it’s not gold.
What’s missing are the wins, especially in the major championships that truly define a golfer’s career. He’s never won one, even while cashing enough top-10 checks to earn more than $40 million playing professional golf.
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Kuchar took a first baby step toward changing that Thursday, shooting a 5-under-65 that got him into a three-way tie for the lead after the opening round of the British Open.
His history indicates his name will probably still be on the leaderboard on Sunday. The odds are it may not still be on top.
”I always think you can judge a lot about a golf course by its leaderboard Sunday afternoon,” Kuchar said. ”A Thursday afternoon, it’s Thursday. Sunday is the proper four-round test. So we’ll wait until Sunday and see what the leaderboard looks like.”
Kuchar took advantage of an afternoon tee time, when the sun came out and conditions became more favorable, to join Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka atop the leaderboard. He did it right out of the box, shooting a 29 on the front side and then parring every hole on the back at Royal Birkdale.
Kuchar was helped by a rare birdie on the brutal par-4 sixth hole that played to a 4.5 stroke average.
”Made an incredible birdie on the sixth hole, one of the hardest holes out here,” he said. ”My goal on six wasn’t to tee off and make birdie. My goal was to kind of survive the sixth hole, however made a birdie. And I just kept plotting away.”
That’s a good strategy at Royal Birkdale, especially if the wind howls and the rain comes down sideways.
It’s a course Kuchar has some familiarity with, having played his first British Open here as an amateur in 1998. He missed the cut that year, but already fans were talking about the kid with his father on the bag who smiled his way around the course.
The month before, fans sang ”Happy Birthday” to him at the U.S. Open as he celebrated turning 20 with a 14th place finish.
It seemed a good time to turn pro, and Kuchar was thinking about leaving college to do so. But a chat with Payne Stewart at Birkdale helped convince him it was not the right path to take.
”Most of the tour players that I had picked their brain said, `Matt, you seem like you’re ready to go pro. You seem like your game is ready. Probably a good time to strike while the iron a hot,” Kuchar recalled. ”Payne said, ”Matt, stay in school. You only have four years to be a college kid. The PGA Tour is going to be here for the next hundred years. Don’t be a veteran that’s been out here ten, 20 years, and wishing, `I had those two years back to be a college kid.”’
Fast forward 19 years and Kuchar is indeed a tour veteran. But he returned to college after playing at Birkdale, not turning pro until 2001.
Now he’s in a position to make a good career – he’s won seven times on the PGA Tour and took the bronze medal in Rio – an even better one.
”I think everyone thinks, if I put the week together, it could be me at the end of the week holding the trophy,” he said. ”I know I’ve been around a while, but I also feel like I’m in about the prime of my golfing career. I feel like I certainly have as good a chance as anybody.”