Matt Kuchar: The youthful phenom might finally be growing up

There are a few images of amateur golf that fans will never forget. Phil Mickelson, with that goofy, youthful smile putting on the silver conquistador helmet after claiming the Northern Telecom Open. Justin Rose with his hands raised after he holed out for birdie on the 72nd hole of the 1998 Open Championship.

And the smiles of Matt Kuchar, that wonderful week in '98, when he played his heart out at Augusta National as a 19-year-old, finishing T-21 as the low amateur.

Kuchar became a golf sensation because he looked like everybody's kid. Ear-to-ear grin, readable personality and "aww-shucks" mentality. The only difference between Kuchar and your kid is the fact that Matt could score, and I'm not talking about the filthy way that just popped into your brain. Following his T-21 at Augusta that year, Kuchar tied for 14th at the U.S. Open, giving everyone the optimism that "the next big thing" might be a toothy youngster from Georgia Tech.

But much like another Georgia Tech product, David Duval, winning didn't come easy early on for Kuchar once he turned pro. Even after breaking through in '02 at the Honda Classic, it took Kuch seven years to claim another title, which came when he beat Vaughn Taylor in a playoff at the Turning Stone Resort Championship last October.

That win late last season seemed to take a little weight off the shoulders of a guy who has bounced around between the PGA Tour and the Nationwide, and maybe a bit of the momentum has carried over. Early on in this week's SBS Championship, Kuchar posted a salty little 67 to finish the first round a shot behind Lucas Glover.

The excitement for Kuchar to play well stems from what we remember of the guy when he was a kid. Most fans still look at him as the boy that holed out behind the bunker at 16, not the man that's out vacationing with his wife in Hawaii the week before the PGA Tour season kicks off.

He broke out on the most beautiful golf course in the world, in one of the biggest events that sports has, and stole the show while Mark O'Meara was claiming his first major and Jack Nicklaus was making a final run at a seventh green jacket. Talk about a coming-out party.

Now, 12 years later, we're getting that feeling again that Kuchar might be controlling his game. On Thursday in Hawaii, there were no blemishes on his scorecard. If he keeps this play up, and starts to find himself in contention more and more, Matt might go the way of many PGA Tour pros who started slow but steadily gained momentum.

As we've learned, it takes a while to learn how to win. Right now, Kuchar is at the prime age to do so, and like the Hawaiian weather and that endearing smile, things look pretty darn good.

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