Kuchar chased by familiar phenom from college years

Aug 14th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Bryce Molder got an early preview of what Matt Kuchar had in store for the field of the 92nd PGA Championship.

And we don’t mean more than a decade ago, when they were nearly unbeatable teammates in college.

The two former Georgia Tech stars played practice rounds together on Tuesday and Wednesday at Whistling Straits. Kuchar hit it straight and Molder was whistling.

“He made 13 birdies in 27 holes,” Molder laughed. “Needless to say, I paid him.”

No worries, because despite a rather lengthy delay, the overdue payoff for the pair of all-everything amateur stars is finally at hand. Continuing the best season of his career, Kuchar took the 36-hole lead at 8 under on Friday at Whistling Straits, three shots ahead of Molder, who is tied for third among those in the clubhouse.

Kuchar, who at 32 is a year older than his former teammate, has plenty in common with Molder, and not just in terms of their college credentials and the name of the school on the diploma. Kuchar won the 1997 U.S. Amateur, was a media darling as low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open the following year, and was viewed as a can’t-miss pro prospect with a massive marketable upside.

Molder, a year behind Kuchar, was even more of a prodigy and the rarest of the rare. He was a four-time first-team All-American, a feat that had been accomplished only three other times, including by Phil Mickelson and David Duval. The two burned up Atlanta like nobody since Sherman.

Then golf intervened. Heaping helpings of humility, at some point, is all that is assured.

“I think that’s the beauty of the sport,” Kuchar said. “There’s no guaranteed contract. You have to perform. And it’s a tough game.”

The two former phenoms are finally kicking back.

Kuchar, who is ninth on the money list and seemingly on the way to his first Ryder Cup, won his first PGA Tour event as a rookie in 2002, so his star seemed in ascension. Three years later, he was bounced back to the Nationwide Tour, golf’s version of Triple-A. Also kicking around in the minors after failing to make the big leagues was Molder.

“I think most people would have expected the two of us to be doing this earlier on in our career,” Kuchar said. “But I remember talking to some guys when I was fresh on tour, talking to them about a 10-year learning curve out here.”

Kuchar, already a millionaire, looked at them like they were certifiable.

“I went out and had a win straightaway in 2002 and thought it would be smooth sailing, and yet here I am 10 years into it and I feel like just now, maybe there is something to this learning curve,” he said. “I can’t tell you what it is; I can’t tell you what the difference is. I don’t know if it’s comfort level. It’s kind of one of those unspoken things that I’m really not sure how to describe it to people, other than maybe there really is a 10-year learning curve.”

It’s probably maturity as much as anything. Molder made a self-deprecating crack about the fact that both of them were finally atop a major-championship leaderboard after two rounds. About time, right?

“We thought it might happen a little sooner,” laughed Molder, who stands a solid 50th on the tour money list.

Like, seven or eight years ago.

You could count Kuchar among the long list of those who thought Molder would have been a household name by now.

“I would have told you hands down, Bryce would have dominated out here straightaway,” Kuchar said. “I thought Bryce had no chinks in the armor. Out of school, he was hands-down the best player in college golf.

“I thought, ‘There was a guy that’s going straight to the big leagues and going to do well out here.’ It’s just a funny game.”

He has it backward. It’s more of a cry-till-you-laugh game.

Molder’s ascendance was self-induced. In college, he was a short-game wizard who felt his ball-striking needed a major overhaul since it didn’t measure up to what he saw in other tour players. A thousand swing tweaks later, he accepted that his putting was the strength of his game and he stopped fretting over the technical aspects of his swing. He earned his card in 2002 and 2007 but failed to stay in the top 125 until last season, when he finished 63rd.

“I was almost embarrassed,” he said of his ball-striking out of college. “That was the start of the road to where we are today.”

It had twists, detours, speed bumps, dead ends, roadblocks and a fender-bender or four. Both of the former teammates are incredibly articulate and have suffered the slings and arrows of the game with an admirable perspective.

“It’s been a journey,” Kuchar said. “Not that many people ever get to be up here.”

It sounds like a platitude, but rest assured that this pair is relishing every moment because of the cross-country trek it required to get here.

“I think sometimes paying the price and having to dig yourself out of things makes you a better person, a bigger person,” Kuchar said. “And hopefully more prepared to go out and do well in events like this.”

As even the reigning world No. 1 can attest, nobody is bullet-proof forever in this game.

“Everybody, everybody, we’re finding out, has trouble throughout their career at some point or another,” Molder said. “I think 15 years from now I’ll feel like I was fortunate to do it early and learn and be humbled by the experience and enjoy the rest of the journey.

“That’s really what I’m really enjoying is the last two or three years is just kind of the climb. I don’t even know where the journey ends — it never does.”

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