Matt Kuchar Controversy Sheds New Light On Golf’s Old Problems

Matt Kuchar’s caddie payment controversy is a tale as old as golf. Joe Nicely discusses for The Combine.

I love golf. I love playing it, watching it, talking about it, betting on it, and playing PGA DFS. And like many others that love the sport, I love it maybe a little too much. It’s hard to explain to someone that isn’t a fan of the sport, but suffice it to say, folks have obsessed over golf since the day it was first played. Like many of my fellow golf nuts, I’ve been following this Matt Kuchar caddie controversy on social media over the past couple of months, as with all things golf, maybe a little too much. What started out as a heartwarming, feel-good story has devolved into a publicity nightmare for Kuchar, and to a lesser extent, a bad look for the sport. Golf has a fairly ugly history and deserved reputation of being an exclusive, racist, and elitist sport. And while this Kuchar situation seems minor on the surface, it does drag out and dust off some of golf’s oldest skeletons.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the story, here’s the CliffsNotes version: Matt Kuchar, a successful, longtime player on the PGA Tour, traveled to Mexico in November for the Mayakoba Golf Classic, a ‘swing season’ event, but a legitimate PGA Tour event nonetheless. Kuchar was a late commit to the tournament and his longtime caddie John Wood wasn’t able to make it due to a previously scheduled engagement. In need of a caddie, Kuchar went with the man considered to be the best local caddie available, David Giral Ortiz, or as most know him, ‘El Tucan’. Ortiz caddied at the host club daily and had experience in PGA Tour events (he helped journeyman pro Alex Cjeka log a top-10 finish in the previous year’s Mayakoba Classic). Of course, in true Cinderella fashion, Kuchar goes on to win the Mayakoba Classic with ‘El Tucan’ on the bag. It was the PGA Tour veteran’s first victory in over four years and he took home a massive $1.3 million winner’s check. It was a great story, golf fans loved seeing ‘Kuch’ win and it was made even sweeter by his use of a hometown caddie like ‘El Tucan’. Everyone was happy, until they weren’t.

Things got stirred up in January on Twitter. Former PGA Tour player Tom Gillis responded to a playful Tweet by current Tour caddie Kip Henley with an insinuation that a PGA Tour player had stiffed a caddie by only paying him $3,000 after winning an event in the fall. Twitter did what Twitter does, and it didn’t take long to figure out the player Gillis was referring to was Matt Kuchar. This came as a shock for a couple of reasons…the first being that Kuchar has long been considered one of the ‘good guys’ on the PGA Tour with his ‘aww shucks, golly gee-whiz’ persona and ever-present smile making him a fan favorite over the course of his career. The second reason is that Kuchar has printed money on the golf course. He has racked up over $46 million in career earnings. Yeah…that’s not a typo, $46 MILLION. It would maybe be easier to understand if a scuffling Tour pro went cheap on a bonus, but not a player as accomplished (and rich) as Kuchar. Kuchar was asked about the validity of the allegations on social media concerning his payment to ‘El Tucan’ during the Sony Open (a tournament that he went on to win with regular caddie John Wood on the bag) and responded by saying, “That’s not a story. It’s wasn’t 10 percent. It wasn’t $3,000. It’s not a story.”

To give this thing a little perspective, the typical payment to a regular caddie on the bag for a PGA Tour win is 10% of the prize money. So, in the case of Kuchar’s $1.3 million winner’s check at Mayakoba, his caddie’s take would normally be around $130,000, whereas $3,000 (the alleged amount paid to ‘El Tucan’) would be 0.23% of the winning prize money…less than half of one percent. Now, here’s where things get sticky…regular PGA caddies work extremely hard and they are away from their families most weeks of the year. They incur lots of travel expenses, just like their players. Caddies must also endure lean financial times when their player is struggling and missing cuts. So, the usual bonus money that comes with wins and good finishes is a way of evening things out over the grind of a season or career. ‘El Tucan’ didn’t endure any of these hardships over his four days on Kuchar’s bag, so there’s a legitimate argument that he didn’t “deserve” a full 10% share and I think most reasonable people would acknowledge and understand that reasoning. However, I also think most reasonable people would agree that $3,000 on a $1.3 million win is a ridiculous amount. Some, like the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, would argue that it’s no one’s business.

Both Kuchar and ‘El Tucan’ remained tight-lipped about what the actual payment was, until Ortiz broke his silence by speaking with GOLF.com’s Michael Bamberger earlier this week. You can read that excellent piece here, but ‘Tucan’ details his pre-tournament payment arrangement with Kuchar and how he received payment of $5,000 after the Mayakoba win and nothing more, even though he was expecting a bigger bonus to come at some point. Kuchar recently responded to the claims, in an interview also with Michael Bamberger, and that response has been an unmitigated PR disaster.

“For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week,” said Kuchar to Bamberger, referring to ‘El Tucan’. That’s my biggest takeaway from Kuchar’s tone-deaf interview. It’s the perfect illustration that despite the PGA Tour’s efforts to “grow the game”, there is still a huge disconnect between golf’s elite and the regular Joe’s that make their lavish lifestyle possible. Kuchar might as well have said, ‘I’m rich a white American, the guy I let carry my bag is a poor Mexican, he should be happy with whatever I decide to give him.’ I would be really interested to know if payment would have been different if Kuchar won the Scottish Open with a local club caddie. Let me be clear, I don’t think Matt Kuchar is a racist, I just believe that he’s completely out of touch, which has been a problem in the world of golf for a long time.

Kuchar’s utter tone-deafness is surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. The PGA had a ‘caucasian clause’ in effect until 1961. The 1990 PGA Championship was held at Shoal Creek, a club with an openly racist founder. The hallowed grounds of Augusta National have long been haunted by their co-founder Clifford Roberts’ statements on white players and black caddies. We could even dive into the PGA Tour’s current treatment of modern-day caddies, who are almost all white, and weren’t even allowed in from a rainstorm at Riviera Country Club just this week.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about Kuchar’s statements is the obvious disconnect between the financial haves and have nots. Golf has always revolved around money. The PGA Tour kept standings according to earnings up until a few years ago when they instituted the FedEx Cup points standings (the winner gets $10 million).While Brandel Chamblee can argue that what Kuchar pays a caddie is no one’s business, my rebuttal would be that discussion about it became fair game the moment he accepted endorsement money to sell products to the public. Other sports can be played by children relatively cheaply, but golf is another matter. Equipment alone (the same equipment that Kuchar and other players make millions to endorse) is ridiculously expensive, and access to courses and the ability to afford greens fees are a huge obstacle to those of meager financial status.

We can’t throw all of golf’s social missteps at Kuchar’s feet, but his monetary faux pas does, and should, bring to light some of the socioeconomic issues that the PGA Tour still struggles with. Many will point to the time and financial support he has given to various charities as a sign that he’s a good guy…and maybe he is. It’s probably never fair to judge a person on one mistake, but the real shame here is Kuchar’s refusal or inability to see that he even made a mistake.

Kuchar asked an open-ended question to close out his interview with Michael Bamberger: “Maybe I missed the boat here. I kind of think I go there [to Mexico City] next week, and win, am I expected to pay him $130,000?” Yes Matt, you did and yes Matt, you are.

*UPDATE: FOLLOWING THE BACKLASH OF HIS COMMENTS, MATT KUCHAR HAS ISSUED A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO DAVID ‘EL TUCAN’ ORTIZ AND HAS COMPENSATED HIM THE AMOUNT HE REQUESTED, $50,000.

 

 

 

 

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