This time last year Matt Wallace was playing on the Alps Tour. Now, he's a European Tour winner and has played in his maiden Major. He's living proof mini tour dreams do come true
Matt Wallace has had to wait for his shot at the big time. The Englishman spent four years struggling to make a living on the Alps Tour, and watched from behind the ropes at last year's BMW PGA Championship.
He would have done the same thing this year, had he not been playing in it after winning his first European Tour event two weeks earlier. Few would have believed it when he failed to secure his playing rights on European golf's top table at Q-School last year, least of all the man himself.
"Anyone who has been to Q-School will tell you that it's the hardest, most gruelling experience of your career," says Wallace. "There are only 25 places up for grabs, and when you put all that effort in and get nothing in return, it can be quite soul destroying. If you'd have told me back then that I'd get my first win on the European Tour so soon after, I would have probably laughed in your face."
A later bloomer at 27, Wallace only turned pro five years ago and was still working at Hollister when Rory joined the professional rank in 2008. Nine years on and Wallace has won more times in the past 18 months than McIlroy has managed in the last three years. Granted, six of his seven victories were on the Alps Tour, but five of those came in succession between February and June last year. Not even Dustin Johnson can match that.
The funny thing is I didn't do much during my first three years on the Alps Tour," recalls Wallace. "I think I came 28th, 23rd and 11th. And then in my final year I came third in the first event, second in the second event, and won in the third. I ended up playing in nine events, won six of them and didn't finish outside the top four all season."
Wallace's journey from clothes shop worker to European Tour winner has seen some fans label him the Jamie Vardy of golf. But while his humble beginnings make him the antithesis of your typical tour pro, it's clear he had to overcome more challenges than most to get to where he is today.
Wallace made it through US Open qualifying to play in his first major at Erin Hills earlier this year.
"Both my parents were PE teachers so I played sports from a really early age," says Wallace, whose dad also played rugby for Wasps in the 1970s.
"But golf was never the top one; I was more into my rugby and cricket. I played both at county level and I only started to really kick on with my golf when I was about 18. At that point, I was working or I was out partying quite a lot."
"I knew I had to make a decision on whether to go full-time or pack it in and get a proper job. I ended up going to America in 2010 to Jacksonville State [University] on a golf scholarship for a year."
"I'd always wanted to go because I loved the American system and I found out Danny Willett had been there. It was in the middle of nowhere which was good for me at that stage in my life because I could just concentrate on the golf. We'd be up at 5am for the gym and then have a bit of breakfast before classes from 8.15am until 2pm and then straight on to the golf course. It was full on but great."
Despite being ranked No.1 at the university and getting called up to the England squad in 2011, Wallace struggled to make the step up from amateur to the professional ranks and had to wait until February last year for his maiden victory. In that time, he admits he contemplated giving it all up.
"I turned pro in 2012, but after a year or so I went through a phase of working so hard without being able to see the outcome," he explains. "I started doubting myself and I did send a few CVs off to ISM and IMG to try and get into golf management."
"Luckily, I had a few people behind me who were telling me, 'no, don't quit, keep going." Ironically, it was a chance meeting with ISM's super-agent Andrew "Chubby" Chandler at Wentworth last summer which gave Wallace the opportunity he'd been waiting for. "Chubby got me an invite to the Nordea Masters in Sweden around this time last year and that was brilliant, playing in my first-ever European Tour event," says Wallace.
"I made the cut and that really gave me the confidence to push on. After that, I signed with ISM at the British Masters and then won the final event on the Alps Tour and earned my Challenge Tour card."
Winning the satellite Tour's Order of Merit brought him access to the major leagues and, with it, a chance to make amends after missing out at the Q-school in November. He came close at the first time of asking, finishing third at the Kenya Open in March.
"I was actually leading going into the final day," he says. "I didn't get it done, but there was a progression of playing some really good golf. I went to Turkey, played well there, and then shot 10-under par in the first round at the Portugal Open."
"That was a really big deal and to follow that up by shooting seven- under on the second day was huge because it is so difficult to do. That gave me a lot of confidence, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous going into that final round.
"Not many people know this, but when I was walking up to the first tee, I just pretended that I was playing back at my home club [Moor Park in Herts] with the members. I always have to give them so many shots, so I have to shoot seven or eight under not to lose any money! I went into that round thinking I need to shoot well under par, and I managed to go bogey-free and made four birdies to seal the deal."
Wallace won his first ever European Tour title at the Portugal Open in May by three shots
Before then, the most Wallace had ever won from one tournament was just over €10,000. He pocketed more than eight times that amount by going wire-to-wire in Portugal. Not bad for four days' work. But while most 27-year-olds would be eager to splash the cash, Wallace has no interest in living a life of luxury and is still content with living at home with his parents in Middlesex.
"I didn't even know how much I won in Portugal," confesses Wallace. "I'm not interested in chasing the money. I just want to get my ranking down. I've already come from 500 at the start of the year and to 137 after winning the Portugal Open, which is my career high. I will try to crack that top 100 now but my lifelong dream is top 10. It was never number one."
"When you're inside the top 10, you have a chance to become No.1 and that's always been my aspiration. Of course, some of the perks are nice and it is a dream playing courses like Wentworth. But winning is the reason why I play golf."
It's a feeling Wallace has been used to ever since he got off the merry go-round of switching coaches. "I've had about four coaches over the last six or seven years," admits Wallace, "but I never really related as much to their methods as I do with Matt Belsham."
"He teaches Charley Hull and Oli Fisher and a friend of mine put me in touch with him just after Q-School in December 2015. I got through to the final stage, but I just didn't play well or swing well enough."
"I knew that I needed to change something, so I did, and it took me three months to get my first win. Before then, I was putting myself in positions to win, but I was losing tournaments all down to technique. Under pressure, my swing didn't hold up and I was getting too steep with a closed clubface. I was hitting it right and left and you can't do that."
Among Belsham's other pupils is Wallace's role model Alex Noren, who's gone from nearly-man to serial winner on the European Tour in the last two seasons. "It's been really inspiring seeing his progression," says Wallace.
"He's a big idol of mine and he's showed that if you put the practice in, you will be rewarded. I never go into a tournament expecting to win – otherwise I think you're just setting yourself up to fail – but I always try to give myself the best chance to do so.
Wallace credits Alex Noren as an inspiration to him - who has the same coach as the Portugal Open winner
If I miss the cut, I miss the cut, but I never want to have any regrets. That's why I try to do everything in my power to be prepared for every week, whether it's doing something golf-related in the gym, thinking psychologically about golf or improving my swing."
It's a work ethic which has formed the bedrock of his rise up the rankings. The hardest part now, he admits, is trying to take his game to another level. But with one European Tour title already under his belt, would he ever consider following in Andrew 'Beef' Johnston's footsteps by trying to crack America?
"I don't see the need to change anything now," says Wallace. "Maybe down the line I might play on the PGA Tour if it will help my golf. I played a lot of college tournaments in the States and I think the courses suit my game. But I've just got on to the European Tour and I'm focused on keeping my card. Plus, I know if I play good golf, I will get taken over there. That's what happened with Tyrrell [Hatton] this year and that's something I'd love to happen to me." Whether he gets there or not, it won't be for want of trying.
Matt Wallace Timeline: From Alps
August 2011: Finished runner- up at the Czech International – his joint-best nish as an amateur.
July 2012: Lost 2&1 in the first round of the English Amateur Championship – to Matt Fitzpatrick.
October 2012: Turned pro.
December 2012: Finished seventh at the Alps Tour qualifying school to secure his playing rights for 2013. He also took home £100 in "winnings".
January 2016: Started the year ranked 1,173 in the world and without a win in 46 starts on the Alps Tour.
February 2016: Ended a four-year wait for a maiden Tour title at the Pyramids Open in Egypt.
June 2016: Made his European Tour debut at the Nordea Masters, finishing in a tie for 53rd. Later that month, he won for a fifth time in a row on the Alps Tour.
October 2016: Took the honours at the Alps Tour Grand Final – his sixth victory of the season – to finish top of the Order of Merit and secure his Challenge Tour card for 2017.
November 2016: Suffered more heartache at the European Tour Q-School where he missed out on the final stage by 14 shots.
March 2017: Couldn't convert a 54- hole lead at the Kenya Open, finishing T3.
May 2017: Led from start to finish at the Portugal Open to win his first-ever European Tour title by three shots. Two weeks later, he qualified for the US Open at Walton Heath.
June 2017: Made his Major debut at Erin Hills, but rounds of 76 and 75 meant he missed the cut by six shots.
September 2017: Made his fourth European Tour top 10 of the year at the KLM Open, finishing T9. His other