As Matt Kuchar battles Jordan Speith down the stretch at the British Open it's worth reminding that 20 years ago today (July 23, 1997) was Kuchar's coming out party -- at Niagara Falls Country Club. Fresh off his freshman year at Georgia Tech, Kuchar shot 62 in the opening round of the Porter Cup to tie the course record at the time held by Bobby Clampett.
Kuchar finished second to John Harris in that 1997 Porter Cup , but that opening round resonated. He later admitted, while playing in the U.S. Amateur at Oak Hill, that the 62 had validated in his mind that he was capable of playing with the game's amateur elite.
Here's my story from the round:
KUCHAR GRINS HIS WAY TO PORTER CUP LEAD
There's the sheepish smile, the one many a player dons when he's had a solid day and is feeling pretty good about it, though he doesn't care to let everyone know just how good he feels.
And then there's the rare, ultra-wide, unabashed, 20-tooth sizzler, a smile that says, "You're not going to believe this, but . . ."
It was that smile of grand proportion that spread across the face of Matt Kuchar Wednesday afternoon as he arrived at the scoring tent after the first round of the Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club.
Kuchar, a sophomore-to-be at Georgia Tech, did what no player has done at NFCC since 1978. He scorched the front nine, blistered the back and shot 8-under-par 62, tying the course record set by Bobby Clampett 19 years ago.
"He made it look awfully easy today," said Crickett Musch, one of Kuchar's playing partners and the collegiate representative of Karsten Manufacturing, makers of Ping equipment. "It was like watching one of those guys who play Saturday and Sunday on television.
I've played with a lot of great players. I've never seen anything like that." .
Kuchar recorded eight birdies and no bogeys. His record-tying romp of 30-32 came on a day when 19 players came in under par. There hasn't been so much red flowing at a sporting event since Holyfield-Tyson II.
Tony DeLuca, the 1980 Porter Cup champion, overcame a double-bogey on the first hole with a string of birdies that left him alone in second with a 65. Clemson University's Jonathan Byrd and Walker Cup team member John Harris were next at 66.
"It was not very hard today," Harris said. "Not much wind; greens were soft; short rough; easy pins. The course was ripe to be had."
Kuchar, a third-team All-American as a freshman, seized the opportunity by dropping radar-equipped approaches and converting a slew of putts 6 feet or less.
"I just never missed a putt I should have made today," he said. "People get mad at my putting. They see too many drop in. But I didn't have one (go in) over 20 feet today."
Kuchar ranks his putting as the strongest part of his game (and Musch was delighted to see Kuchar putting with a Ping). But you don't shoot 62 anywhere, anytime without a game that's complete.
"He reminds me of Tom Lehman," Musch said. "Tall (Kuchar is 6-foot-4), kind of swings the same way, hits a little draw. He hit some tee shots that were very impressive, very long. And the other thing was he made all the putts he needed to make."
The round could have been better. Kuchar reached the green of the par-5 11th hole in two and then three-putted. "It was probably the only blemish of the day -- and that was a par," he said, again smiling broadly.
And the round could have been worse. Kuchar made a savvy sand save off a downhill bunker lie on 17, then produced another sand save on 18.
"It would have been a letdown to shoot 63 at that point," Kuchar said. "They were just really important (pars) to make to cap off a great round."
Kuchar began playing golf in the seventh grade, about the same time his father, Peter, took up the game. Both are natural athletes. In tennis, Peter was a top-ranked doubles player in Florida. Matt excelled in tennis, basketball and soccer.
Matt mastered golf well enough to earn a scholarship to Georgia Tech, and there's no doubt the Yellowjackets landed a prize recruit. Kuchar won a pair of tournaments and placed in the top 20 in nine of his 10 events.
This summer, he placed fifth in the Dogwood and 18th in the Northeast before taking some time off from competitive golf. Too much time off, he feared.
"I came out here trying to get ready yesterday, and I just wasn't as confident," Kuchar said. "I hadn't prepared myself the way I should have. Just being at home having a good time, seeing friends again, playing for fun . . .
I wasn't tournament-ready." .
Yet in the wake of his record-tying round, there seemed conclusive evidence that the time away had been mentally refreshing.
"Definitely," he said. "Oh, definitely."
A couple of hours after his round, Kuchar was seen walking back toward the 18th green. Across his path came U.S. Amateur runner-up Steve Scott, who was making his way up the 10th fairway.
"Hey Matt, skip a hole?" Scott deadpanned.
Kuchar just smiled. It was that kind of day.