By Dan Reardon
Play unfolds this weekend in the Ryder Cup matches at Hazeltine Country Club outside Minneapolis with an American team likely favored despite an embarrassing two wins in the last 20 years. Captain Davis Love III, looking for personal redemption after a crushing defeat four years ago at Medinah, turned to hyperbole in describing his team as perhaps the greatest ever.
For European Captain Darren Clarke, it can only be described as a rebuilding year. His group of 12 is loaded at the top with the trio of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson coming off a summer of FedExCup, Olympic and Open Championship wins respectively. But Clark will be navigating scheduling dynamics, trying to shield six rookies against Ryder Cup pressure, particularly in Sunday singles and the always difficult foursomes.
One of those European rookies is Matthew Fitzpatrick, a player already seen as potentially part of the next generation of stars off the European Tour. Just turned 22, Fitzpatrick is no stranger to success on American soil. In 2013 he won an all non-American final at the U.S. Amateur at Brookline Country Club, defeating Australian Oliver Goss 4 and 3.
So precocious was that win for the 18-year-old that weeks after it he started his freshman year of college at Northwestern, retracing the footsteps of countryman Luke Donald. But college was not where Fitzpatrick was going to pursue his career in golf, and he dropped out after his one semester. He remained an amateur for a few months to take advantage of his exemptions into the Masters and the U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
At 5’10” and just over 160 pounds, Fitzpatrick was seen by some as needing to get serious in the gym to be competitive in the professional ranks. He acknowledged the concern but issued a caution. “I don’t know whether I need to be doing more to get bigger or whether I just sort of do a little bit and maybe get a little bit but not that much bigger and just sort of keep the same technique. The thing about it, I don’t really want to get too big or do stuff in the gym. Maybe that’s going to sort of ruin my technique.”
Beginning his professional career in 2014, mid-summer at the Irish Open, Fitzpatrick needed to rally on his final nine at European Tour qualifying in September to find a home to play. He birdied three of his final six holes, finishing tenth and securing for 2015, while still only 20 years old.
He launched his first full season as a professional in impressive fashion with a T4 in Dubai. Through his first 20 events he posted nine top 10s and broke through for the win at the British Masters supported by Sky Sports at Woburn Golf Club. With the two-stroke victory over Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen, he guaranteed his Tour status for the immediate future. And even though he faded through the later part of the 2015 schedule, he had earned another invitation to Augusta and the Masters in 2016.
More inconsistent in 2016, Fitzpatrick had two outstanding performances to highlight the year before the Ryder Cup maiden voyage. He earned his second professional win by three at the Nordea Masters in Sweden, and while Danny Willet was making headlines with his win at the U.S. Masters in April, Fitzpatrick matched Willett’s 5-under 67 at Augusta National on Sunday. His T7 assured him he would be back in Georgia in 2017. Only 12 months from staying in the Crows Nest at Augusta, Fitzpatrick said playing now for real as a professional was a contrast. “I think every shot really does count. As an amateur when I played, it didn’t really matter too much if I missed the cut. It was a great experience for me, and I think I wouldn’t have done as well as I did this year without that.”
Fitzpatrick is still stereotyped as a little short through his bag to take his game to elite status. He offsets a driving average under 280 yards with an amazing green percentage in the mid-70s. Pairing Fitzpatrick with a fellow rookie like Thomas Pieters, who drives it off the planet, could produce a unique scoring pair for Clarke this week.
Regardless of how he performs at Hazeltine, Fitzpatrick has already decided his future starting in 2017, thanks to some advice from Jack Nicklaus. “He said you have to play against the best to be the best,” Fitzpatrick told the The Telegraph in the U.K. “And that’s my plan: to join the PGA Tour and live over there. I’m looking at buying a house in the States at the end of the year. The thing is a lot of the European lads have gone over and tried it and not liked the U.S. Some go over there for a month or so, at a time, some don’t go over at all. The thing is, I love it in America. I’ll be all in.”
He even returned to his Northwestern sojourn, adding a block “N” to his golf bag on Tour.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.