A couple of hundred people followed Matt Kuchar around the West Course of Oak Hill Monday afternoon. What a difference 13 months makes.
Kuchar had just finished his freshman year at Georgia Tech and was virtually unknown outside of the Atlantic Coast Conference when he arrived at Niagara Falls Country Club for the Porter Cup last July.
But before his first round was over Kuchar's reputation had begun to blossom. He strung birdie after birdie, building a gallery along the way, and went on to tie Bobby Clampett's course record with an 8-under-par 62.
That round, and his ensuing second-place finish to John Harris, is what convinced Kuchar he might have a world-class game. His conviction was confirmed when he won the U.S. Amateur less than a month later. High finishes in the Masters and the U.S. Open were to follow.
"That was my first experience with media attention," Kuchar said after beginning defense of his Amateur crown with a 2-over-par 71 Monday. "At first it was just me and other players. Then people heard I was 4-under, 5-under, 6-under and all of a sudden people started finding their way out. I don't know if someone had a walkie-talkie or what was going on but all of a sudden TV cameras were out there and it was exciting.
"As it was, I finished runner-up to John Harris which I don't regret at all," Kuchar said. "I wish I would have won but finishing second to John Harris was an honor in itself.
"I think that kind of gave me a lot of confidence and it was my springboard. I went out and shot 62 in a major amateur event."
Kuchar said he felt an adrenaline rush when the large crowd greeted his arrival on first tee Monday with hearty applause.
"It was reminiscent of Augusta," he said. "You walk out into an enclosed tee box and the crowd is going nuts to see you."
Kuchar is taking a somewhat conservative approach to the stroke-play portion of the tournament.
The top 64 golfers advance to match play beginning Wednesday.
"Play smart, make lots of pars and avoid the big number," Kuchar said. "Attack a pin every now and then when you can.
"It would have been nice to have been exempt into the match play," joked Kuchar, who tees off at 8:25 this morning. "You would think they'd give me a little bit of a benefit."
With the winds gusting to 30 mph, club selection was a challenge. Brian Nosler of Lake Oswego, Ore., pulled out a 4-iron to attack the West Course's 150-yard fourth hole. It was the right club. The ace helped Nosler card a 72.
. . . The start of play Monday was delayed 1 hour, 40 minutes by rain.
Tim Jackson of Germantown, Tenn., the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur (over 25) champion and a Porter Cup regular, was one of three players to shoot 2-under 68 on the demanding East Course.
"I think I got lucky because I went off early," Jackson said. "And I got to play nine holes before the wind really picked up. The golf course was pretty soft, and I could pretty much pick a distance and hit it, rather than play for the release."
Like Kuchar, Jackson was aiming at avoiding the kind of high-scoring round that would increase the pressure for the second and final round of stroke play.
"I've done it both ways," Jackson said. "I've shot 78 and had to come back and shoot 67 to make match play. I'd much rather shoot 68 and have a little breathing room."
To reach Oak Hill from Buffalo, take the New York State Thruway to Exit 47 (490 East, Leroy). Follow the 490 East to exit 25 West (31F Fairport). Turn left at the end of the exit (East Road) and proceed about one mile to Kilbourne Road, located on the left-hand side.
Tickets may be purchased at Will Call, located at the corner of East and Kilbourne. Tickets are $15 through Friday and $25 on the weekend.