Matt Kuchar coming into own at PGA

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- We should have seen this coming.

After all, he held his own playing with Tiger Woods at the Masters. And he followed that up a few months later by tying for 14th at the U.S. Open as an amateur.

Pretty good stuff for a guy who was wet behind the ears -- and whose smile covers the distance between them.

Of course, that was 1998. So perhaps it was a long time coming.

The impressive game and friendly demeanor stamped Matt Kuchar as a star of the future. He was a first-team all-America at Georgia Tech, had won the U.S. Amateur, and was destined for greatness.

It hasn't exactly worked out that way.

Kuchar, 32, is the clubhouse leader at the PGA Championship and until this year never had a finish as high in a major championship as he did 12 years ago when he didn't know any better.

Now he does and has come to realize why it took so long.

"I think it's golf," said Kuchar, who shot 3-under-par 69 at Whistling Straits to complete 36 holes at 136, 8 under par. "I think that's what happens. There aren't many people here that play this game that don't have ups and downs."

Kuchar is having an excellent season, tying for the PGA Tour lead with eight top-10s. The second of his two PGA Tour victories came last fall at the Turning Stone event.

Adding some irony to the scenario Friday was his former Georgia Tech teammate Bryce Molder popping up on the leaderboard. Molder, 31 finished three strokes back of Kuchar, a scene that figured to play out many times by now.

That's because Molder's collegiate career was more decorated that Kuchar's. Molder was a four-time all-American at Georgia Tech and a three-time ACC player of the year.

But nine years after turning pro, Molder has yet to win on the PGA Tour. He has a single Nationwide Tour victory, in 2006, the same year that Kuchar had to take a step down to the developmental tour. Until last year, Molder had posted just three top-10s in his career.

"I think there's certainly a maturing process," Kuchar said. "I would have told you, hands down, Bryce would have dominated out here straightaway. I thought Bryce had no chinks in the armor. I thought out of school he was, hands down, the best player in college golf. I thought there was a guy who's going straight to the big leagues and going to do well out here.

"It's just a funny game."

For Molder it has been a far tougher road than the one traveled by Kuchar. Only in the past two years has he started to have some success on the PGA Tour, topping $1 million in earnings last year for the first time and doing so again this year, as he has posted six top-10s and nine top-25s.

"Everybody, we're finding out, has trouble throughout their career at some point or another," Molder said. "I think 15 years from now I'll feel like I was fortunate to do it early and learn and be humbled by the experience and enjoy the rest of the journey. That's what I'm really enjoying the last two or three years is just the climb. And I don't even know where the journey ends.

"We thought it might happen a little sooner," Molder said about success for Kuchar and himself. "Things happened. This game's tough. There are a lot of really good players. Sometimes it takes a little while to figure out how to play your best, how to maximize your efforts out here, and I feel like he's just hitting his stride and I feel like I'm doing the same."

Kuchar is undoubtedly one of the most improved players on tour in recent years.

This year, he ranks first in the tour's all-around statistical category, which includes a scoring average of 69.72 that ranks fifth. He is ninth in greens in regulation. Three years ago, after returning from a stint on the Nationwide Tour, he ranked 98th overall and 84th in greens in regulation.

"It's been fun to watch," said Lance Bennett, Kuchar's caddie since 2006. "There's been a steady progression the last four years. He's gotten better every year. There doesn't seem to be a weakness in his game. And his putting has been phenomenal."

Even Colin Montgomerie was impressed. The European Ryder Cup captain, who will miss the cut at Whistling Straits, played with Kuchar during the first two rounds.

"He handled himself very well leading the tournament," Montgomerie said. "Holed a couple of great putts this morning [in the completion of the first round]. Very, very solid player. As solid a player as I have played with on the U.S. Tour for a long time and someone who will be a great asset to their Ryder Cup team, I am sure."

Molder got to witness some of that good play first hand this week.

Although he's been playing in the group in front of Kuchar for the first two rounds, they played practice rounds together prior to the tournament. They played 18 holes on Tuesday and nine more on Wednesday.

"He had 13 birdies," Molder said. ""Let's just say I didn't. I actually still owe him right now."

It is the kind of golf that Kuchar took for granted all those years ago.

"It's going by so fast," he said. "I still find myself feeling almost like a rookie. I still feel like I'm the kid from '97 winning the U.S. Amateur and playing the Masters in '98. I still feel like I'm that same kid. It seems like that is just a blink of an eye ago."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.