Viewpoint Kuchar’s penny-pinching cost him plenty in bad publicity

February 16, 2019

The first time I met Matt Kuchar he was bigger than the money.

And now, all these years later, he was smaller than the money. Or at least that is the way he came off in front of all the world.

Surely, there are worse things in the world. Kuchar could have been accused of a violent crime or trafficking heroin or stealing Hondas from the Honda Classic. Yet among professional athletes, especially one that has won $46.6 million in prize money and has a number of lucrative sponsorship deals, nobody wants to be known as tightfisted, miserly, a cheapskate, a lousy tipper.

Yet this was where Kuchar find himself after giving his fill-in caddie $5,000 of his $1.296 million winner’s prize at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico in November. It wasn’t a bad look. It was a horrible look. Kuchar had a chance to change a man’s life and instead he changed his image to one of a tone-deaf skinflint. He stiffed the little guy until he finally came to his senses Friday and tried to make it right.

As he walked down the fairways, they weren’t going to be yelling “Kooooch!” anymore.

They were going to be yelling “Scrooooge!” As in Ebenezer. Not a good place to be.

And not where I found him in the clubhouse at TPC River Highlands that day in July 1999 during the Canon Greater Hartford Open. He was eating slices of honeydew. He was 21. The big smile, the one seemingly perma-plastered to his face, was already there. Yet so was a sense of priority and respect rare among young guys in today’s world of major athletics. This was his first of nine appearances at Cromwell and he was playing for free.

He had been the best amateur player in America the year before, 21st at the Masters, 14th at the U.S. Open. There were endorsers itching to give him millions and all sorts of PGA Tour paydays immediately available to him.

He had said no. He had returned to Georgia Tech. Getting his college degree was more important to him. He was the antithesis of greedy. He was second-guessed for turning down the money. Kuchar said he did what his heart and mind told him was the right thing, and no matter what he wouldn’t be unhappy.

Kuchar had plummeted in the college rankings and missed the cut at the NCAA Championships. Still, he was happy. He loved to go to football and basketball games, loved hanging out with his friends. He would return again to Georgia Tech to get his degree in business management in 2000.

I remember him saying something wise beyond his years that July day in 1999. He said he didn’t worry about people second-guessing him, because he’s not second-guessing himself.

And then the kid born and raised in Florida began talking about his Connecticut ties and his annual summer trips to New England. There have been few major athletes in professional sports easier to approach than Kuchar. He has won nine PGA Titles. He played in the Ryder Cup. He won the bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics. At age 40, he is the 10th all-time leading money winner. He has breezed through Cromwell, the latest in 2016 at Travelers Championship, talking about his childhood adventures at Camp Wulamat in New Hampshire, staying with his grandparents Maurice and Jay in Madison, hunting for golf balls in the woods at Madison Country Club, playing in the junior Canon Cup at River Highlands.

There was nothing not to like about Matt Kuchar.

And then there’s nothing to like about what he did to caddie David Gial Ortiz. His attempt to explain it all to golf.com only made him look worse.

Kuchar’s regular caddie, John Wood, did not make the trip to Mexico. So Kuchar told Ortiz, nicknamed El Tucan, he’d get $1,000 if he missed the cut, $2,000 if he made it, $3,000 for a Top 20 and $4,000 for a Top 10. Ortiz, Kuchar said, agreed. The extra $1,000 he gave the fill-in caddie after the victory was a “thank you” for a great week. They posed together with the trophy. All smiles. Ortiz opened the envelope Kuchar gave him out of the golfer’s sight. He thought a check for more would be coming. Oritz was wrong.

There is no hard-and-fast rule but a winning caddie ordinarily gets 10 percent. That would mean $130,000 for Ortiz. For a guy who makes $100-$200 day caddying at the Mexican resort, this would have been life-changing money. Ortiz was thinking about opening a laundromat. Instead, Matt took him to the cleaners.

“I feel like I was fair and good,” Kuchar told GolfChannel.com. “You can’t make everybody happy ... This seems to be a social media issue more than anything. I think it shouldn’t be, knowing that there was a complete, agreed-upon deal that not only did I meet but exceeded.

“I certainly don’t lose sleep over this.”

Kuchar said he thinks someone got in El Tucan’s ear. Maybe they did. He said for a guy who usually gets $200 a day, $5,000 is a really big week. Maybe it is. Maybe Kuchar, as he said that day in Cromwell 20 years ago, did what his heart and mind told him was the right thing and no matter what he wouldn’t be unhappy.

Except this time he should feel very unhappy. He should have lost sleep over this. And guess what? Somebody got in HIS ear. Like the entire world. At long last, he apologized Friday. At long last, he said he would pay Ortiz the $50,000 he thought was fitting. He said he would also give a donation to charities in the Cancun area.

Kuchar never said, because it happened in Mexico, with a drastically lower average income, $5,000 means so much more. After all, his $1.3 million payday was in line with other PGA Tour stops. Mark Steinberg of Excel Sports Management, which represents Kuchar, had tried to offer Ortiz $15,000, clearly damage control. El Tucan said forget it. Keep your $15,000.

Kuchar also said this was not a story. Oh, no, Matt, this was a story. This is the kind of story that doesn’t go away. One that stains reputations. Kuchar was getting ripped by caddies. No players stepped forward for him. Everywhere he looked he was being castigated for stiffing a regular guy.

“This week, I made comments that were out of touch and insensitive, making a bad situation worse,” Kuchar said in a statement. “They made it seem like I was marginalizing David Ortiz and his financial situation, which was not my intention. I read them again and cringed.”

You see the charities he has helped. Camp Twin Lakes for children with serious illnesses, Ronald McDonald House and more. Then again, this is a guy with big-time endorsements from Sketchers, Bridgestone and more. He is a rich man. He acted like a very cheap man. Even five percent of his winnings would have been $65,000. He gave El Tucan .0038 percent.

There was no winning with the fans. There was no winning with his sponsors. There was no winning within the game of golf. Kuchar said he called a penalty on himself, something he should have done a long time ago.

Good. But the penalty should have been $125,000 more, not $50,000.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123