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Kuchar in race for golf's biggest payoff

| Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010

ATLANTA — 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 FedEx Cup going into the final playoff event, which starts today 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."

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 consistency than perfection.

The plan has worked. 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."

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