Matt Kuchar has so many warm and fuzzy connections with Atlanta and East Lake Golf Club that this week’s Tour Championship should be like a trip to Grandma’s.
A Grandma with the world’s greatest yard. A Grandma who spoiled her brood in ways that would make the Rockefellers seem tight-fisted.
Yet as Kuchar opens play Thursday at the Tour Championship he still is trying to figure out how to thrive in this setting. After the richest, most eventful season of his life, he is one of the favored ones here. No. 5 in FedEx Cup points, he can, no questions asked, automatically win the $10 million Cup bonus if he wins this tournament. To do that, he will have to overcome his track record here because familiarity has not bred success.
Three previous visits to the Tour Championship: finishes of 10th, 20th and 25th in a 30-man field, a scoring average over par (70.42). Only four of the other 22 players in this year’s field with East Lake/Tour Championship experience have a higher scoring average.
“I don’t know, I just haven’t finished where I had hoped to at East Lake,” Kuchar said.
And he has tried multiple approaches. He has thrown himself into off-the-course socializing with old friends from his days at Georgia Tech and those when he made his home in Atlanta. He has backed off all that, thinking he wore himself out before making it to the first tee. And he has drifted closer to his original approach this year, he said.
“One of the things, I’ll probably go to a barber shop off Howell Mill Road. A guy named Kevin cut my hair forever when I was here. I want to see him,” Kuchar said.
A barber may have just the tonic he needs. Who knows? “I just hope I find the right formula to play well here,” he said.
Kuchar — or “Koooooch” to the fans who bellow that after every shot — figures to be a favorite with the gallery this week. The affection is requited.
His deep feelings for this area have many sources. As a former Tech golfer, Kuchar made multiple trips to East Lake and was steeped in the tradition of another Tech man, Bobby Jones. That kind of thing gets in a fellow’s blood.
“I still love this golf course. Walking through the clubhouse, I still slow down to look at the trophy cases and admire all the memorabilia and continue to try to soak it all up,” he said.
His Tech loyalties will always keep him connected to Atlanta, no matter where he might move.
“During Georgia-Florida week, when all the Georgia fans come to St. Simons, it drives him crazy,” laughed his wife, Sybi, a former tennis player at Tech.
Even though Kuchar moved to St. Simons a couple of years ago, a good chunk of his philanthropic heart remains here. Camp Twin Lakes, the locally based charity that offers camp experience to children with serious illnesses and disabilities, has become the family’s main cause.
“I root for him every tournament,” said Doug Hertz, the camp’s founder and chairman. He’ll be in the gallery Friday doing just that.
Any time Kuchar is able to direct charitable contributions from playing in events such as the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, he steers them toward Camp Twin Lakes. He and Sybi, who used to volunteer in the organization’s office when the couple lived here, host an annual golf tournament for the charity. The site? East Lake, of course.
While Kuchar plays Saturday, Sybi will be at the main Camp Twin Lakes facility with the couple’s two young children.
“Those are some of my fondest memories, going to camp. Same with Sybi,” Kuchar said. “As kids you learn so much stuff, you learn a sense of responsibility when you go away from your parents. When I heard more about Camp Twin Lakes and what it does for kids who can’t go to camp, I thought it was awesome.
“Anybody who gets into giving, you end up getting so much of a reward out of it,” he added. “We play a selfish game. I go out and play golf and dedicate so much time to my skill, and fortunately I’ve been blessed with receiving a lot of good because of my golfing ability. You do have to give back. It was nice to find something that really hit home with us.”
Now, how to wrap up all the good feelings that overwhelm Kuchar every time he is around East Lake and translate them into four rounds of winning golf?
Kuchar has had, he said, “an amazing year because for years it has been a goal of mine to win multiple times on the PGA Tour.” That he did this year, at the Memorial and the World Golf Championship. He ranks seventh in the world and is getting accomplished enough to at least edge into the conversation for “best golfer to have never won a major.”
He theorized that some of his Tour Championship troubles may have been the result of year-end fatigue. There have been signs this year that he has a little left in the tank at playoff time: a fourth-place finish at the Deutsche Bank Championship at the beginning of September and a round of 61 last week at the BMW Championship.
If nothing else works to get him going low at East Lake, maybe an omen will.
As he flew to Atlanta from Chicago and the rain-delayed BMW, Kuchar really believed he had fallen out of the top five in the FedEx points standings. Seated next to fellow pro Keegan Bradley, Kuchar looked at the updated standings on his friend’s phone and was surprised to see he was still No. 5.
Quite strange, Bradley told him. He had the same conversation with a player a year ago flying to Atlanta, down to the very detail of riding the bubble between fifth and sixth.
That was Brandt Snedeker, who went on to win it all from the fifth position.
“I’m hoping somehow that there’s some sort of fate there with Keegan being the middleman amongst all that,” Kuchar said.
One more positive thought to add to the pile.