ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech's two outstanding golfers complement each other even off the links.
Maybe more than anyone else, Bryce Molder wants Matt Kuchar to return for his senior year at Georgia Tech.
"You wouldn't believe how much attention Matt gets," Molder said. "It really makes it easier on the rest of us. We can just concentrate on golf and let Matt answer all the questions."
At most Division I schools, Molder would be the team spokesman. After all, the sophomore enters the NCAA East Regional tournament Thursday in Providence, R.I., as the top-ranked player in the MasterCard Collegiate Golf Foundation poll.
Molder, named last week as the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, concluded his freshman year by receiving the Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year award -- an honor bestowed by the golf legend himself on national television.
While these honors are considerable, they don't carry the star power of Kuchar's accomplishments. Kuchar was the defending U.S. Amateur champion, and his wide, engaging smile made him the darling of the 1998 Masters.
A 14th-place finish at the U.S. Open last year, coupled with his making the cut in each of the seven PGA Tour events he has entered, make Kuchar a household name in amateur golf.
"Matt has played well when the cameras are on," said Tech coach Bruce Heppler. "No matter where we go, he draws a crowd. People want autographs, want to talk to him. It's unbelievable."
Said Kuchar, "Yeah, sure, sometimes it gets to be a distraction, especially since I'm taking 21 hours (of courses this quarter) and trying to graduate (in four years). But overall, I can't complain. It's been an incredible experience."
The East Regional has many subplots, particularly the rivalry among Clemson, Georgia and Georgia Tech. The schools are ranked first, second and third nationally by Golfweek's Sagarin computer poll, though Georgia holds a 6-1 mark over Tech and a 4-3 record against Clemson. The Bulldogs are first, Clemson third and Tech fourth in the MasterCard men's rankings.
Though it won the ACC tournament last month in Uwharrie Point, N.C., Tech heads to the Rhode Island Country Club with a 2-6 mark against Clemson this school year. That mark is attributable in part to the play of former Richmond Academy standout John Engler, a sophomore who owns the lowest stroke average (72.19) in Clemson Tigers history.
Engler, who played a U.S. Open local qualifier Monday at Old Town in Winston-Salem, N.C., and shot 71 but was not among the nine players who advanced to the sectionals, is ranked fourth in the latest MasterCard poll and seventh by Golfweek.
"We play better against good competition, though I don't know that we real
ly look at it as a rivalry like they do in football," Engler said. "After Kuchar won the Amateur, everybody wants to play well against him."
Eleven of the 23 teams entered in the East will advance to the NCAA Championships June 2-5 in Edina, Minn. Augusta State, a hot team this spring led by Robert Duck, and South Carolina are also in the regional.
The Central Regional in Columbus, Ohio, features Augusta's Charles Howell, an Oklahoma State sophomore ranked sixth in the MasterCard and eighth by Golfweek, as well as Augusta's Scott Volpitto, a Texas Christian sophomore ranked No. 76 in the MasterCard.
Tech won the East Regional last year, thanks to a 1-2 finish from Kuchar and Molder. The Yellow Jackets then took third in the NCAA as Molder and Kuchar finished sixth and seventh, respectively. Molder played every round under 70, and his four-day total of 270 set a school record.
"I had a feeling I'd do OK coming into last year," said Molder, a resident of Conway, Ark., who's considered the state's best-ever recruit. "But I'd be lying if I told you I thought I'd have that good a year."
Molder has continued his strong play in 1998-99 with nine top-10 finishes in 11 tournaments. He was low medalist once, in Dalton, Ga., finished second three times and was in the top five on five other occasions.
The same cannot be said for Kuchar, who entered the fall ranked No. 1 by Golfweek and No. 2 in the MasterCard. He enters NCAA play as MasterCard's No. 70 player (Golfweek does not list players past No. 20).
After nearly turning pro following the British Open last year and, according to the Orlando Sentinel, turning down no less than $2 million in endorsements, Kuchar has struggled physically and emotionally.
The Orlando-area native strained his back in a pickup basketball game in September and missed two of Tech's five fall tournaments. Kuchar had only one top-20 finish and wondered aloud and to himself whether he should have turned pro.
"I'm past that now, but it was tough," said Kuchar, who could have pocketed nearly $118,000 in PGA Tour prize money in pro appearances. "It's hard not to second-guess, especially when you're talking about a lot of money. But I know now I made the right decision to stay in school, and I'm putting all my energy into helping us win a national title."
The spring has been better, even though a stomach virus and then a bout of flu made him grind through four PGA Tour rounds at the Bay Hill Invitational and four more at the Masters. Kuchar's one win this year for the Jackets was in Hawaii, but he has no other top-10 finishes. His stroke average in college (73.7) is fifth best among the Yellow Jackets, and Heppler has used only 17 of his 24 rounds.
"He's been pulled in a thousand directions," Heppler said. "I don't know how he's managed it, especially with the class load he has. We've really had to work to let him have the time he needs."