US Open 2014: Matt Fitzpatrick - ‘They thought that I was just some kid fetching practice balls for Tiger’
British teenager is ready to mix it with the big boys at this week’s US Open
With luck it will be the last time he is asked for his ID when he turns up at a tournament or, even worse, dispatched to fetch some range balls for Tiger Woods. That was the lot of Matt Fitzpatrick at The Open Championship last year, when a member of the Woods retinue assumed the soon-to-be US Amateur champion had bunked off school for the afternoon to work the range at Muirfield.
“It was a guy wearing Nike clothes. It wasn’t his [Tiger’s] caddie. He said, ‘Tiger doesn’t play Titleist.’ I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘No, Tiger definitely doesn’t play Titleist.’ I said they were for me and then he sort of disappeared. My Mum and Dad were in the stands pointing behind me. Tiger had just come on the range and this chap had obviously come to get him some balls. It still makes me laugh.”
Fitzpatrick, 19, is the fresh face of Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable. You might recall how Chandler steered Rory McIlroy to his first major championship three years ago, the US Open, where Fitzpatrick plays his last tournament as an amateur this week. Chandler concedes that he made errors in the handling of McIlroy, delegated too much responsibility. He should, perhaps, have given him more of his personal time.
Fitzpatrick will not want for that. Chandler pursued him heavily, and, for the first time with a golfer signing professional terms under his aegis, formalised the arrangement with a contract. “For us to get him has been great, especially after a couple have left us [McIlroy, Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel, Chris Wood]. To get someone who trusts us as much as he does is really nice. We had an unbelievable run for five years, just send them off to a major and one will come back with it. Then you have a period when you think this is really hard work,” Chandler says.
“I will go to every tournament he plays in. I’m happy hands-on, when I’m in control and I know what’s happening. For three or four years I didn’t. I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s just the way things developed. But with Matt I’ll be involved in everything.”
Fitzpatrick does not have the explosive genius displayed by the young McIlroy. He is more out of the Luke Donald mould: organised, even-tempered, the thinking man’s golfer. “They are very different players, different people,” Chandler said, comparing this teenage nugget with the last. “Matt’s dad is a bank manager, very risk-averse. That has had an impact, probably. Rory’s dad always knew that Rory was just going to be Rory. Rory is a wonderful talent with a big game, but as an amateur Matt has done more.”
Fitzpatrick took the same Northwestern University route as Donald, if only for one semes- ter. Qualifying for The Open last year was a life-changer, exposing him to the full panoply of the professional game at its height. His success at the US Amateur a month later brought him further up golf’s high table, with invites to the Masters and the US Open.
It was inevitable, given the seismic shift in experience, that the big adventure in American college golf would be downscaled in the imagination. He was already in possession of the top honour in American amateur golf and with an Open behind him and an invite to the Masters ahead, the prospect of teeing up in the campus league was less appealing. Plus the homework in Chicago was a beast. “Maybe going to an academic institution ranked 19th in the world was not ideal,” he said.
Having quit university, turning professional was simply a matter of timing. “Before the Masters my coach, Pete Cowen, said I can do it technically, I just need the experience.” Playing alongside defending champion Adam Scott induced a double-bogey start. A birdie at the second demonstrated his capability and maturity. After a creditable two days he missed the cut by just one stroke. He was in excellent company alongside Phil Mickelson, Els, Donald, Sergio Garcia and 2011 champion Schwartzel.
From there he went directly to the Heritage at Harbour Town and felt he could have been six shots better. “Everyone who watched me said the same thing. If you can gain just a few of those shots it makes a massive difference.”
Fitzpatrick was not alone in reaching for the post-round calculator to measure what might have been. The six shots left out there would have taken him to fifth; 23rd was not bad and, coupled with his Masters immersion, convinced him he was ready to walk among men.
“I spoke to a lot of guys; they all thought I was ready. Graeme McDowell was a big help. I spoke to Lee [Westwood] a lot. Now he’s nicked my coach [Mike Walker]. I played a practice round with Justin Rose at the Masters. The advice was more to do with picking the agent that was best for me.
“I’m not saying I’ve achieved everything there is to achieve in the amateur game. I could try to retain the US Amateur, but that is so hard to do. The time just seemed right to try to get my card.”
He would settle for making the cut at Pinehurst, a neat boost to morale en route to his first proper paid job. “The last one was babysitting for my brother. It’s a little bit of a difference, 20 quid compared to the prize-money on tour.”
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