When Matthew Fitzpatrick walked up the 18th fairway at lunchtime on Sunday, the famous Open grandstands were not full to capacity. Not as they were much later in the afternoon. Not quite as he had wanted.
But it was still a fine reception as the 18-year-old from Sheffield concluded his debut in a championship he could grace for many more years to come. He had Fred Couples, the former Masters champion and one of the most loved players in the game, for company. Even better, by winning the silver medal as the leading amateur, he got to go back out on the 18th green when the stands were packed to attend the presentation ceremony.
His only wish that did not come true was when the world No 1 failed to join him at the presentations. “I don’t really have a hero, if I’m honest,” Fitzpatrick said before his final round. “I’d probably say it’s the classic for every little kid, if I can call myself that, but it’s Tiger. I’m hoping he wins today so that I can finally meet him.”
Earlier in the week Fitzpatrick was mistaken for a bellboy on the practice range and was asked to show his badge. Getting up close to Woods on the range, however, was the undoubted highlight of the week. “For him to be so near was like one of the best things ever,” he marvelled.
Such has been the effect of Fitzpatrick’s performance, at his home club, the Hallamshire, the television has been moved from the spike bar to the main lounge. “I think I’m a bit more popular,” he said. “It’s been a problem for a while.”
Fitzpatrick went round in 72 strokes on Sunday to finish on 10 over par. His only rival for the amateur prize was Jimmy Mullen, a 19-year-old from Royal North Devon, who scored a 75 to finish at 15 over.
Understandably, a little youthful inexperience cost a double bogey at the 14th hole. It was his third double bogey of the week but he showed exactly why he has been recruited to play golf at Northwestern University in Chicago from September with his finish. At the short 16th he holed from 15 feet for a birdie, then only just missed another chance at the next. At the last he got up and down from 70 yards for a par, holing from 10 feet and bumping fists with Couples.
“It was a great way to finish,” he said. “I didn’t fancy a little one-foot tap-in, thought that would be a bit boring. The support has been fantastic all week and down 18 it was pretty nice. Although I said to my caddie that I was hoping for a full grandstand but he said, ‘You’re making a big wish there’.
“But the bigger the crowd, the better I’ve played. Most people would find that a bit strange, I guess, but I’ve really enjoyed the support.”
His caddie was Lorne Duncan, who caddied for Tom Lewis when he won the amateur honours at Sandwich two years ago. Duncan lives in a motor home in the car park of Pete Cowen’s academy, where Fitzpatrick’s coach, Mike Walker, works. “I learnt a lot from him on plotting my way around the course,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s worked for a lot of great players and came out of retirement for me.”
Couples was also certainly impressed with what he saw. “He was very relaxed and I kept telling him, ‘good shot’. He didn’t miss many shots. As he gets bigger, he’ll hit it a little further but he hits it plenty far. He’s a good putter. At 18, you should putt well.”
Fitzpatrick found out why golf aficionados love watching the American up close. “He’s much better than I thought he was,” said the youngster, raising a laugh. “Not that I thought he was poor at all, but he strikes it so good. For me, the big thing is he’s got such a free-flowing swing. And he’s a great putter. I was really impressed with the way he holed out.”
As for the other players he shared a fairway with over the week, Fitzpatrick enthused: “Every single person I played with couldn’t have been nicer to me. I really appreciated it.” He singled out the American tour player Russell Henley on Friday for a special mention: “I hooked my ball into the shoulder-high rough on 17 and as soon as it landed he sprinted after it. It was the ultimate gesture. It’s been an amazing week.”
Fitzpatrick was the first British Boys’ champion to qualify for the Open since Sergio Garcia in 1998. Now he returns to the amateur scene with the English Championship in just over a week. “I can’t imagine any other amateur event being as hard as the course we’ve played this week,” he said. “The fairways are just so narrow and the rough is just ridiculous. It’s going to be a little different next week. I’ll have to keep an eye on my ball because there won’t be any spotters.”