April 08, 2019: The first time I played Augusta National was in my freshman year at Georgia Tech, in 1997, as part of an annual trip with the golf team. It was one of those really cool treats we got to do at Tech.
Every player on the team looked forward to it, so you can imagine what it was like as a freshman. Even your fourth time, as a senior, you were up the night before, ironing your clothes, doing things you never did as a college kid, getting everything laid out and ready to go for the next morning.
Once there, we’d get to drive down Magnolia Lane. I kind of pinched myself as I went in. I remember every year getting on that driving range and the turf being so pure that I could hardly take a divot. It just didn’t feel right. I felt it might be frowned upon because the grass is so good.
I just couldn’t wait to play the first hole, to see what that was all about. And it was like, Holy Cow, I can’t believe that’s already over. So you’ve got that excitement going to the second hole, but you’re bummed out that the first hole is already behind you.
The first time on the course, you revisit some of the great shots that have been hit during Masters history. To stand where Larry Mize chipped in at No. 11 to win in sudden death in 1987, or where Jack Nicklaus made some of his incredible putts. Then, before you know it, you’re in the Clubhouse eating a cheeseburger.
Having the Georgia Tech connection made all of us feel very much at home at Augusta National. We knew the Bobby Jones legacy — he earned a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, became a legendary amateur golfer who won the Grand Slam in 1930 and co-founded Augusta National Golf Club — and the alumni who were Club members.
My first time inside the Clubhouse, I wanted to see the Trophy Room and the Champions Locker Room. I can remember going up into the Crow’s Nest, too, and sharing the dream with a couple of my teammates: Man, wouldn’t it be cool to be here one day as an amateur, to maybe win the U.S. Am and get to stay up here?
As you can imagine, when I won the U.S. Amateur after my freshman season, I got some funny messages from my teammates. You know, “Can’t believe you did it,” and, “Wish it was me.” Stuff like that. They were friendly, and also kind of jealous. “We can’t believe you get to stay in the Crow’s Nest. Amazing.”
“Dad and I have done some amazing things together, but I’m not sure any of them can beat ’98 and my first time at the Masters”, said Matt Kuchar.
It’s one thing to play Augusta National; it’s another to play in the Masters and get to enjoy everything that goes on that week.
One of the great traditions for amateurs is the Amateur Dinner on Monday night. It was really cool for me because the Master of Ceremonies was Charlie Yates, a Georgia Tech alum. The Club does a great job of making you feel that this is what the Masters was originally about, that the amateur element is a huge portion of the tournament because it was started by Bobby Jones. They let you know that you’re just as big a part of the tournament as the pros are, and that they are cheering for all of us amateurs to have great success.
I was paired with defending champion Tiger Woods in the first round in 1998. I remember Tiger left the putting green and made his way to the first tee before I did and got a huge ovation. I followed him and thought, I may sneak onto the tee box and nobody will even know I’m there because he’s Tiger, and I’m just a little amateur kid, the local boy from Georgia Tech.
But when I walked onto that first tee, I got a huge ovation, too. I can remember them announcing my name. When it was my turn to tee off, I remember shaking badly as I tried to put the golf ball on the tee. I was probably as nervous as I’d ever been. But I hit a good drive, just past the fairway bunker, and off we went.
I stayed in the Crow’s Nest all week. On Friday morning, I came down early — those steep stairs are almost ladder-like — and rounded the corner. I felt like I was stepping out of a phone booth. I walked out of this little door, into the dining area, and people are looking at me like they were thinking, Where did he come from? And I’m like, Where did you come from? It was a funny way to start my day.
My dad caddied for me that week, and to share that experience with him was really special, something I’ll never forget. Dad and I have done some amazing things together, but I’m not sure any of them can beat ’98 and my first time at the Masters. For a child to be living his dream, and for a dad to see his child living out that dream … and to have all those patrons so supportive and behind me, was an experience that far exceeded anything I ever anticipated.
I was a 19-year-old kid, and remember the sheer joy of getting to play in the tournament. To play well (finished T-21, earning a return in 1999) just topped it off. I mean, to shoot an opening-round 72 and go shot for shot with Tiger Woods, who shot a 71, was something I never thought I’d be able to do. I even shot a 68 in the third round.
Unfortunately, there was a fairly long stretch there when I didn’t qualify for the Masters (played in 2002, then not again until 2010). I wanted to be there, and I’d be bummed when the cutoff date came and I didn’t get a playing invitation. I was still such a fan that I couldn’t wait to tune in on TV. I didn’t want to miss Jim Nantz when he did the intro to the telecast. I didn’t want to miss any part of it.
I’ve used that experience to make a couple of second-nine runs to climb the leader board. In 2012, I even had a shot at winning. I was in contention on the second nine and tied for the lead after almost holing out my second shot at No. 15. The eagle there was a thrill, but I bogeyed the next hole and dropped back. Still, to play late on Sunday afternoon, get off to a decent start and have a real chance to win (T-3), was incredibly exciting.
The responses of people around the course add to the excitement. With experience playing there, roars often give you feedback on what’s going on. Because you know where the manual leader boards are located and you know who’s playing behind you, you can often tell where the roars are coming from and whether they’re the result of a great score being posted or a great live shot. It’s exciting to be in that type of arena and to be able to cause a roar that other people can hear on different parts of the course. It’s easy to tell when I’ve done something special because of the “Kooch” cheers I get.
We’ve enjoyed some nice family memories at the Masters, too. My sons have been able to caddie for me in the Par 3 Contest, and that’s been fun. They love the dress-up part of it and can’t wait to put on the white jumpsuits. My grandfather (Maurice Kuchar) caddied for me in the Par 3 the first couple of years, my mother (Meg) did it one year, and my sister’s son, Tripp, who is really into golf, did it a couple of times.
Then, my two boys took over. At first, Cameron, now 11, did all of the bag-carrying duties. Carson’s duties (he’s now 9) included giving out golf balls after each hole. He has graduated to sharing the bag-carrying. Last year, Cameron made a long, 30-foot putt at No. 9 from up top, and he was so excited. It was funny — he was bummed out that it didn’t become a SportsCenter replay.
Two years ago at the Par 3, as he and I were walking around the lake toward the ninth green and the big hill behind it, I said to him, “Isn’t this so much fun?” He looked up and said, “Dad, I wish EVERY day could be the Par 3 day at Augusta.”
In 1998, when my dad and I were walking up the 18th fairway on Sunday, he held me back for a minute and said, “Enjoy this. This is a great moment to remember.”
He was right, and I wanted to make sure I soaked it all in. All these years later, that’s still one of my favorite Masters memories.