ROCHESTER, NEW YORK | Even a blind pig finds an acorn occasionally. I know that old saw to be true because I found one in June last year. On the eve of the 122nd U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, I wrote an article about English golfer Matt Fitzpatrick, suggesting he was a serious contender to win that historic event. “Fitzpatrick Quietly Arrives” was the headline on my story with “Englishman Emerges As Major Force In Brookline Return” as the subhead.
The article ran to 1,500 words or so, and its last words were: “Watch out for Fitzpatrick. You won’t hear him, but you’ll see him on leaderboards as he goes quietly and impressively about his business.” Four days later, one man was top of the leaderboard, had both hands clasped firmly around the large trophy and a smile as wide as the Charles River on his face. His name was Matt Fitzpatrick.
Forgive this intrusion of immodesty. I don’t mean to suggest that I get it right very often, because I don’t. It may be one of the few times in nearly 50 years of golf writing that I have accurately hinted even, not forecast, the winner of a major golf event. So indulge me. Be kind to this blind pig. Let me have my moment of glory.
Besides, here we are 11 months later at another golf course in the Northeast of the United States and once again Fitzpatrick’s name is being mentioned as a potential winner, albeit less loudly than that of Jon Rahm, the Masters champion, and Scottie Scheffler, who has not finished outside the top 12 in any tournament since October.
Why Fitzpatrick? Listen to Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion who is now a CBS golf commentator: “It seems to me (Matt) is healthy again. He has had a confidence boost after the great win … against (Jordan) Spieth at Hilton Head (on the third hole of a playoff in the RBC Heritage in April). He has an extra gear off the tee from a distance.
“He has picked up 4 mph clubhead speed in the past 18 months, which is incredible. He is a guy who plays tough courses and tough conditions extremely well. He is not a moaner, not a whiner. He thrives on it when it gets difficult. I always felt that Tom Watson was like that. He liked it when it got mean and nasty out there, because he knew it got rid of a lot of the competition because they didn’t want to hang in there. Fitzpatrick is like Watson in that.”
And no one doubts this course at this storied New York golf club is difficult. “It’s a proper test,” said Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters and 2015 (British) Open champion and current U.S. Ryder Cup team captain. “The winner here has to be patiently aggressive,” said Dottie Pepper, the CBS golf commentator. “I think it’s a big golf course that you can’t just go bombs-away on. You have to be completely flexible. You are going to have to read what the weather is going to do, because we could have an inch of rain on Saturday and that would completely change what Sunday looks like.”
Said Immelman: “What freaks me out … is how narrow it is and how precise you have to be in order to keep your ball on the short grass.”
In sum, Oak Hill’s East can best be described as being a brutal, noisy, hairy-chested, wide-shouldered and brawny sort of course that offers no hiding places from the first tee to the 18th green. You might be able to fake it around some courses, but you can’t fake it here.
One of the defining qualities for the 28-year-old Fitzpatrick is that he is a Yorkshireman, that is to say one who comes from that county in England. Yorkshiremen are distinctive. He has no airs or graces, no delusions of grandeur, no belief at all of his own self-importance. He is as proud of his slight Yorkshire accent in his speech as he is of Sheffield, his hometown in Yorkshire, and Sheffield United, known as the Blades, its football team. Sheffield is known for its production of steel cutlery. Fitzpatrick plays golf with a steely determination.
Not exactly harming his chances is Billy Foster, Fitzpatrick’s caddie, who may be one of the best in the world. Foster has caddied for 40 years and in 14 Ryder Cups working for Seve Ballesteros, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and, very briefly, Tiger Woods. He, too, is a Yorkshireman, blunt-speaking, thoughtful and very wise in golfing matters. He is also a brilliant after-dinner speaker, telling stories about his time working for Ballesteros, often imitating the pitch and cadence of Seve’s voice, but that’s another one for another day. The partnership of these two Yorkshiremen, one nearly twice as old as the other, is one that was made in heaven.
“But then come Sunday of the U.S. Open, I felt like I knew exactly what to do: just do the opposite of what I had done at the PGA. I learned a lot from that.”– Matt Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick’s victory at Brookline last June owed more than a little to his performance in the previous month’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills Golf Club, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was joint second after 54 holes and eventually finished joint fifth. He was playing with Will Zalatoris in the last group of that championship, and on the Sunday he appeared to be overshadowed by the demands of the course. When he was center stage, he didn’t look comfortable and did not play with the assurance of someone who believed he should have been in the last group of a major championship.
“I think that in that final round there was a lot of talk about me … playing too fast, looking a bit rushed,” Fitzpatrick said. “Obviously at the time you don’t see that, and I only had a week before I was playing my next tournament, so I didn’t get much time to reflect on it. But then come Sunday of the U.S. Open, I felt like I knew exactly what to do: just do the opposite of what I had done at the PGA. I learned a lot from that.”
Indeed he did. At Brookline one month later, he was majestic, bestriding the stage, a proud Yorkshireman playing the golf of his life (and his bunker shot on the 72nd hole was the shot of his life) with another proud Yorkshireman carrying his bag and walking alongside.
Can Fitzpatrick repeat here in Rochester, another part of the northeastern U.S. what he achieved in Boston last year, i.e., win a major championship? It would not be a surprise given his accuracy from the tee and wonderful putting.
“I have the confidence now that I can do it,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. If I can play the same way again and putt as well as I know I can, then that will add to my performance. I know now I can contend and win.”
For first- and second-round PGA Championship starting times, click HERE.
Top Photo: Sam Greenwood, Augusta National
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