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KUCHAR SAVORING THE JOYS OF GROWING UP

One of the enduring pictures of the golf year came in the final 20 minutes of the British Open, when Justin Rose, the brilliant Brit amateur, holed his approach shot on the final green.

The TV camera quickly searched the crowd and panned in on Matt Kuchar, the reigning U.S. amateur champion. Kuchar, a spectator by then, wore a 2,000-watt smile as he watched his counterpart bask in the ovation.

A day later, Rose turned professional. Kuchar spent two more weeks playing golf in Scotland, returned to the U.S. to do some water skiing and relaxing in New Hampshire and then came to Oak Hill, where he will begin defense of his amateur championship Monday.

Any regrets? Any wistful thoughts about following Rose's path?

"None," says Kuchar, firmly. "I want to stay a kid for a while longer. I want to go back to school at Georgia Tech. I'm glad I'm here as defending champion. I've been looking forward to this for a year. The money can wait.

"Justin and I discussed it when we played at Loch Lomond. Our situations were entirely different. The schooling system over there is a totally different ball game."

To say Kuchar's attitude and outlook are refreshing would be an understatement. This is the era of "Show me the money!" When a golfer shoots the lowest round, 68, for an amateur in the last 15 Masters; when he's tied for the lead on the second day at Augusta; when he has a personality for which business managers pray, the usual course is straight to the Nike swoosh and millions of dollars in endorsements.

For Kuchar, all that can wait. He's enjoying himself too much. No agents or sponsors for him, no under-the-table, walking-around money, no corporate caps or even tees. His NCAA eligibility is too precious to him.

Not that his decision to retain his amateur status was motivated by a reluctance to accept the challenge of pressure on the PGA tour. He's played in three of the four majors, finished 21st in the Masters and 14th in the U.S. Open, where he was just two shots out of the lead after two rounds.

"I was right there, thinking about a decision to turn pro. I thought I was ready to play with these guys," admits Kuchar, who stayed with the best in the world in those three majors. "The money would have been nice. It would have allowed me to buy big kids' toys. But there's still a lot for me to learn in school. I grow up more every year."

Besides, he thinks the pressure of playing in the U.S. Amateur may be tougher than that of the majors.

"You start Monday and play two days of stroke play," he points out. "Then you have six sessions of match play, which are like tournaments in themselves. It's grueling, not only physically but mentally. But you get exhilarated as you go on to make the sweet 16, then the quarterfinals, the semifinals and eventually the final.

"I look forward to the whole thing."

Not only that, but Kuchar actually enjoys the part which turns many athletes into cranks: The cameras, note pads and parade of interviews which flow to champions. Saturday, after a practice round on Oak Hill's West Course, Kuchar gave a half-dozen separate television interviews, accommodated a pair of local writers and then cheerfully posed for an Asian photo crew. He also playfully kidded a TV reporter about appearing on camera with 5 o'clock shadow.

"Sometimes you know it takes away from your practice time," he admits, "but then you wake up and see your name in the morning paper and you turn on the TV at night and you enjoy seeing yourself on the screen. It's a good part of playing well."

Kuchar is a business management major at Georgia Tech, so he pays a great deal of attention not only to managing a course, but also how to manage a tournament.

"In the U.S. Amateur, of course, you'd like to be the medalist in stroke play," he says, "but if you coast into match play, you're still in good shape. As gruelling as match play can be, you're refreshed every time you reach the next level. The final round is 36 holes and that's even more gruelling but you're so pumped up, you don't get tired.

"After it's over, that's when you collapse."

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