For better or worse it’s been the biggest story of the 2018-19 PGA Tour season. When Matt Kuchar finally caved to public pressure earlier this month and made things right with temporary caddie David “El Tucan” Ortiz by paying him $50,000 of his $1.3 million Mayakoba Golf Classic winnings, Kuchar likely felt that he’d put the viral story to rest. Think again, Kooch.
In case you’ve been living under a rock since November, Kuchar infamously paid Ortiz just $5,000 for being on the bag during his eighth career PGA Tour win, despite Kuchar winning well over a million dollars in the tournament. Once the story broke nationally and the conditions of Kuchar’s and Ortiz’s “handshake agreement” became public, the fan backlash against Kuchar was vocal.
Kuchar reportedly agreed to pay Ortiz $1,000 if he missed the cut, $2,000 if he made the cut, $3,000 for a top 20 finish and $4,000 for a top 10 finish. The extra $1,000 to reach Ortiz’s $5,000 payout was thought to be a bonus. After Kuchar’s win, Ortiz was unhappy with the arrangement and requested more cash but was rebuffed. At this point, one could argue that Ortiz was in the wrong, but it was Kuchar’s contrite comments and his refusal to admit that Ortiz deserved more that angered golf fans.
"So, I certainly don't lose sleep over this," Kuchar told Will Gray of Golf Channel. "This is something that I'm quite happy with, and I was really happy for him to have a great week and make a good sum of money. Making $5,000 is a great week."
“It’s kind of too bad that it’s turned into a story,” Kuchar continued. “I really didn’t think it was a story because we had an arrangement when I started.”
The backlash from fans was, as you might expect, severe. To fans, Kuchar was outed as an out of touch, cheap and condescending individual. After all, Kuchar has nearly $50 million in career earnings and he paid Ortiz just 0.39% of his nearly $1.3 million Mayakoba winnings. Not a good look. Doubling down and defending his decision? An even worse look.
Ultimately, Kuchar bucked up and agreed to pay Ortiz the $50,000 that he was requesting. He released a statement and essentially apologized for his actions and for his words toward Ortiz.
Statement from Matt Kuchar pic.twitter.com/fZWsK8RjzE
— PGA TOUR Communications (@PGATOURComms) February 15, 2019
Some fans have accepted Kuchar’s apology and have moved on. For others though, Caddie-Gate will forever tarnish any legacy that Kuchar would have left on the game.
For what it’s worth, Kuchar has certainly moved on. However, he admitted that the criticism had taken a toll on him mentally, but that he was appreciative of the fans who stuck with him through it all.
“Last week was hard,” he allowed. “It was actually great coming here, having so much support from the local crowd. I had so many guys in the practice rounds come up and say, congratulations on the win at Mayakoba. It was nice to have fans still supporting me.”
Kuchar would go to claim another victory in Hawaii at the Sony Open in January and has rocketed his way up to second place in 2019 FedEx Cup standings. Again it’s clear that, in Kuchar’s own words, he’s “not losing sleep” over his self created scandal. Some fans though, especially casual sports fans who may not exactly be golf fanatics, aren’t having it.
To many fans, Kuchar’s reputation has been damaged so irreparably that he has effectively tarnished any legacy he was building toward. We’re mere weeks removed from the resolution of this scandal, so it remains to be seen how Kuchar’s career is viewed when things are all said and done, but you can bet that there will always be fans out there who hold “Caddie-Gate” against him. Fair? Probably not… but that’s the price you pay as a professional athlete.
Will the criticism and outright hateful comments follow Kuchar around his entire career? Probably not, but to many he’ll still be the guy who stiffed his caddie.
“I don’t think it will stick with him because he didn’t commit a crime, he didn’t cheat, he didn’t undermine the integrity of what he’s known for,’’ said Daniel Wallach, a prominent sports lawyer, in conversation with the NY Post. “He was just somewhat tight-fisted with his money, like many of us can be at times. He recognized his mistake and he made it right. I just don’t think this is going to damage his brand long-term. Owning up to a mistake is itself a virtue.’’
Joe Favorito, a sports marketing consultant and professor at Columbia University, shed light on the controversy for the NY Post saying, “because it touches on so many areas that are hot-button issues, whether it’s underpaying people as elite athletes and everything going on with the [Mexico] border.”
“But at end of the day, honesty is the most important thing,’’ Favorito said. “You can’t lie. If you’re forthright, and especially if you’re a good person — and all indications are that [Kuchar] is not a guy who flaunts things and he tries to do the right things — I think you overcome these thing by trying to do the right thing.”
An anonymous veteran PGA Tour caddie, however, was not convinced that Kuchar will be able to shed the stink that he’s cast upon himself.
“I like the guy,” the caddie said to the NY Post, “but something like this will stick with him the rest of his life. As time goes on, nobody is going to remember how he made it right in the end, they’re going to remember that’s he’s a cheapskate.’’
Meanwhile, Kuchar carries on with his career and continues to put things behind him. He won’t be playing in this weekend’s Honda Classic, but he’s still a betting favorite to win his first career major and finish in the top of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings for this season. Credit where credit is due, the man they call “Kooch” isn’t letting public scrutiny affect his play this season.