Originally created 08/29/98

'El Nino' reins in Kuchar



ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Someone call Shell. We've got a new candidate for its Wonderful World of Golf.

In a quarterfinal match headed straight to the U.S. Amateur vault, gallant Spanish wunderkind Sergio Garcia wowed the massive gallery Friday at Oak Hill Country Club by eliminating the tournament's defending champion, Georgia Tech junior Matt Kuchar, 2-and-1.

The Spanish must have a patent on the art of the recovery shot, for it was two "pure Seve" irons, Garcia's third shot at the par-5 13th under a hanging branch and over a knoll to help save his par, and his second at the par-4 16th from the thick right rough to set up birdie, that helped the reigning British Amateur champ advance to this morning's semifinals.

"I hope we will play a Ryder Cup match like this one," the 18-year-old Garcia said.

Golf can only hope.

Garcia will hope to avoid a letdown in today's semifinals against 44-year-old Tom McKnight, a petroleum distributor in Virginia who handled Sean Knapp 5-and-3.

And while the possibility of the all-Georgia Tech final ended with Kuchar's loss, Bryce Molder's 5-and-4 loss to Hank Kuehne ended the school's hopes of back-to-back titles. Kuehne will face Charles Howell-disposer Bill Lunde, a 5-and-4 winner over Oklahoma State's Landry Mahan.

The two semifinal winners receive invitations to the 1999 Masters, though Garcia is already assured of his through his British Amateur victory last June.

Rare is the sporting event that matches its pre-match buildup. But Friday's Garcia-Kuchar dramatic showdown exhibited a tour de force that will be hard pressed to mimic. It also rekindled the Oak Hill faithful, estimated at about 4,500 for the match, with thoughts of the 1995 Ryder Cup played here. Interestingly enough, the Europeans won that, too.

"It definitely was the match of the tournament," said a graceful Kuchar, who suffered his first U.S. Amateur loss in two years. "I played tremendously, he just one-upped me. I ran into El Nino, I guess."

Garcia, dubbed "El Nino" by countryman Seve Ballesteros when he was 13, boldly used driver at the short 14th to set up birdie to take the lead. Kuchar tied it at the par-3 15th with a birdie, dropping a 7-iron to 6 feet.

All square at 16, Kuchar piped his drive while Garcia found the right rough. Standing 137 yards away, Garcia faded his wedge to 8 feet.

Garcia's birdie found the side door, and after his triple fist-pump, the match's pressure fell on Kuchar. He pushed his 7-foot downhill slider, granting Garcia his eventual lead.

Garcia celebrated when Kuchar's 17-foot par putt on 17 ended left by hugging his caddie, father Victor, in an emotional scene that had the gallery cheering for more than two minutes.

"It is one of my best matches I've ever played, and I played with a great opponent and a great guy," Garcia said. "I think we are very good friends. It was unbelievable."

And this was just Friday.