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Trailing Tiger: Kuchar to play supporting role Thursday
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Former Georgia Tech golfer Matt Kuchar

AUGUSTA – Imagine that you’re Matt Kuchar. In ’98 as a Georgia Tech student, you were named the nation’s top collegiate golfer, and you finished as low amateur at both the Masters and the U.S. Open. You were a golfing prodigy and a future contender to the game’s throne, a throne topped by the ’97 Masters champ, some guy named - ahem - Tiger.

But things didn’t work out. By ‘06 you were booted off of the PGA Tour for failing to earn enough money, jettisoned to the Nationwide Tour and forced to play your way back. Surprising some, you did, finishing 10th in golf’s minor leagues and winning your ticket back to the majors.

Since returning, you’ve made a slow and steady climb up the PGA Tour rankings, finishing 115th in ’07, 70th in ’08, and earning just your second PGA Tour win at the Turning Stone Resort Championship in ’09. That win came with a prize, your first trip back to Augusta National since ’02.

Coming off of a tie for 8th place finish at last week’s Shell Houston Open, you’re playing some of the best golf of your life, and you’re ready for anything.

Tuesday, you got anything all right ­– a Thursday and Friday pairing with K.J. Choi and the frenzy that is Tiger Woods at the 2010 Masters.

“That’s primetime right there,” the 31-year-old Kuchar said in the middle of his practice round Tuesday, playing with Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover and Steve Marino. “I think all of the players imagined what it would be like (playing with Woods) coming into the week, but now I get the chance.”

You definitely get the chance, sharing that 1:42 p.m. tee time that will likely be approaching the turn as ESPN starts its live broadcast Thursday at 4 p.m. Luckily for you - I guess - you’ve been there before, playing the opening rounds of that ’98 Masters with Tiger.

“It’s kind of like reliving the past. He was the defending champ. We had huge crowds,” Kuchar said. “I was nervous - nervous to be an amateur, nervous to be a first-timer, but Tiger was great to play with.”

Your nerves didn’t show then, as you combined your low amateur title with a tie for 21st place overall. Nonetheless, over the next few days, everyone will say you drew the short straw – in fact, they already have.

“They may beat (Woods) on Thursday and Friday,” Padraig Harrington said Tuesday before the pairings were announced. “But they don’t have as good of a weekend because that’s a lot of energy used up. There’s more focus and more stress and more questions.”

Padraig forgot one thing, Matt – more people. Not just a few more people, but thousands on the course and millions on television will be watching your every move. If you have friends and family driving down from nearby Atlanta that were planning to walk alongside you outside the ropes, they need to make alternate plans. Only the ones that match your 6’4” frame will have any chance to see over the crowds surrounding you. But you think more people are a good thing?

“It’s easier to play with huge crowds than with 12 people watching you,” Kuchar said. “With 12 people, you can hear every word they say. With the bigger crowds, everything anyone says kind of blends in and you can just play.”

I’ll have to take your word on that. So if not you, who got the worst draw? Yuta Ikeda, Ian Poulter, and Steve Stricker, you say?

“I’d rather play with him than in the group in front of him. I played in front of him at the (’99) U.S. Open at Pinehurst, and it was tough,” Kuchar said. “Everyone’s scrambling to get into position. By the times he gets there, everyone’s ready and in their places.”

Yes, we’ll be there, Matt, and when Tiger is blocked by a tree, taking a restroom break, or perhaps even standing idle and emotionless, the eyes of the world will be on you.

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