Matthew Fitzpatrick bagged his first European Tour title with a two-stroke victory in the British Masters at Woburn on Sunday.
The 21-year-old was tied for the lead going into the final day, but four birdies in seven holes on the back nine saw him shoot 68 and join the likes of Lee Westwood, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo as home-grown British Masters winners.
We caught up with him earlier this year, to find out what life is like on tour.
Carrying his bag of balls, Matt Fitzpatrick walked onto the range at Muirfield just before the 2013 Open. “Tiger doesn’t play Titleists,” said the man in the Nike gear.
“No, they’re for me,” said Fitzpatrick. “He thought I was just a kid bringing balls for Tiger to hit,” laughs the young Yorkshireman who, in the 18 months following his Open debut, won the US Amateur, played in three more majors and qualified for a European Tour card. By any standard, it has been a meteoric rise through golf’s often-difficult ranks.
And so it goes on. A month or so after finishing T11 at the Tour Qualifying School, Fitzpatrick recorded his first-ever top-five finish at the South African Open. So far at least, he is fulfilling all of the learned predictions that followed his decision to leave the University of North Western in Chicago after only three months and join the paid ranks.
Fitzpatrick discussed all of the above and more with us in Abu Dhabi. Yes, he still looks a lot like a schoolboy. But he handles interviews like a headmaster.
Let’s start with the story so far. You seem to have made your way onto the European Tour in a fairly seamless fashion. Is that a fair assessment?
It is. It has all happened very quickly. It seems like only five minutes ago I was winning the US Amateur. Now I’m playing alongside the big names on the European Tour. It’s strange to think it is already two years since I won at Hazeltine. It feels like ages ago. But it was a great week and opened so many doors for me. It gave me a lot of experience of playing at the very top level at a young age. I will never forget some of the practice rounds I had at The Open, US Open and Masters.
I played with Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan, and Tom Watson and DA Points. Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter too. That was all good fun.
Are you a ‘brain picker’ or did you just watch and learn?
Yes and no. I watch more than ask. Although I did ask basic stuff like how to organise my schedule, stuff like that. I tend to go to my coaches when I have anything a bit deeper to ask. They know a lot more about the game than I do.
How important for you was winning the US Amateur? Would you be on the tour already if you hadn’t won it?
That’s hard to say. But it did give me such a boost in confidence. And, as I said, I got to play in three of the majors, as well as a few PGA Tour events. I had to turn down most of them but it was nice to be asked. It was a great experience playing at the likes of Harbour Town and Bay Hill.
What did you pick up specifically? What was the difference between you, as a young amateur, and the hardened tour professional?
Nothing stood out particularly, because they were all better than me in almost every aspect of the game. I was at my level and they were at theirs. But I was able to compete. I played all four rounds at Harbour Town and finished T-23. It was only my third or fourth pro event and showed me I could play at that level. It was obvious I had to improve though. I’ve always been that way. I look for little things in my game that need to get better. Hitting it longer. Straighter. Chip, pitch and putt better. Everything really. The good thing is that I don’t have any obvious weaknesses. There are guys on tour who are miles better than me in certain aspects, but I’m competitive in all areas I think. Rory, for example, is a great driver. And someone like Brandt Snedeker is a wonderful putter. So I’ve looked at all of them and tried to pick up what I can.
So, to sum up, you’re pretty good at everything but not the best at anything?
(laughs) Yeah, I hope that first bit is true. What I have picked up since I turned pro is just how important putting is. I’ve had days where I’ve hit the ball pretty well but not holed the putts. When you do that, loads of guys go past you. But I’m like everyone else. I have weeks where I putt well and don’t go so well tee-to-green. And then I have weeks where I hit it well and make very little. The key is to take advantage when both are going well. Plus, I’m usually okay when my long game is good. My short game and putting are more consistent if I’m honest. So I’m not the sort of player who shoots 61 one day then 78 the next.
Is there a different philosophy to pro golf compared with even the top of the amateur game?
There is. In the amateur game it’s all about winning really. If you finish, say, 20th, no one really notices. Or cares. Even a top-five doesn’t really matter that much. But on the tour every position counts. If I finish 10th instead of fifth that can make the difference between keeping my card and losing it. It all matters so much. I had to get used to all of that. Early on, I was playing in events, not doing that well and – while I didn’t give up – I wasn’t fully focused. I was applying my amateur philosophy to pro golf. Which is not how you have to be. I know now you have to focus all the way to the 18th. That’s why you will never see me carelessly tapping in from a foot with one hand. I refuse to do that. Every shot is too important. A tap-in only takes five seconds.
It is a safe bet you got a lot of offers from agents before you turned pro. You went with Chubby Chandler’s ISM. Why?
It just felt right with Chubby. I did have quite a few offers.
I can’t remember…
You’re a good pro already.
(laughs) I can’t, honestly. I spoke to a lot of people before making my decision though. My parents. A few players. My coaches. Chubby just seemed right. It’s hard to put my finger on it. But I know already it was the right decision. I’m very happy there. Everyone has been great and very helpful.
What was the qualifying school like?
It’s a long week. And definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been. Way worse than playing in the US Open with Phil Mickelson. It was tough. But I handled it reasonably well. On the first day I was lying fifth on the tougher course. After round two I was sixth, then I was up to fourth at the halfway point. I was thinking I was well in. I went to bed that night though and started to worry. I knew I just had to keep doing what I was doing. But I had the nagging thought I wasn’t swinging that well. Eventually, that catches up with you. And the fourth round went badly. I made a quadruple bogey on one hole. That was bad but not as bad as it might have been in a four-round event.
In the end I was 11th. Which I was very happy with. I played really well on the last day, in fact. And I coped with the pressure. For a while I was right on the edge of qualifying. I remember saying to myself I was going to find out how good I was under that sort of pressure. I ended up making a great birdie on the 14th and hitting it on in two at the long 15th. I remember thinking if I had made the eagle I was safe. I didn’t but a birdie was pretty good. Standing on the last tee – after getting up-and-down for pars at the previous two holes – I thought I was home and dry. And I was. I was very relaxed on the tee and made a birdie. It was a great feeling.
Was it a kind of ‘I can do this’ moment?
It’s funny. I was glad to do what I did that week, but it still didn’t really sink in that I was going to be playing the European Tour. It didn’t until I was in South Africa for the Open there. I realised I was a European Tour player. I’ve never been too confident – nor have I ever doubted my ability – I’m pretty neutral in that regard. But South Africa was a huge boost. To know I am good enough to make it into the last group on the last day of a big event is nice to know for sure.
I feel like I belong out here now. I can’t wait to do it again. It was so much fun. I was nervous but I coped with it well enough, I think. I was two under par through six. Okay, I had a couple of bad holes after that – the triple on 13 hurt – but it wouldn’t have taken that much for me to win that day. That would have been a massive ask, but without doing much different I could have done it.
Has the change in lifestyle surprised you?
I can ask ISM to do just about anything for me. It’s not like they are my slaves or anything (laughs) but if I want to buy a house or a car or anything they are there for me. I reckon they would do my online shopping if I really wanted them to. To be serious, they look after me very well. What I have noticed in my first few months as a pro is that the ISM boys go out to dinner together a lot. I don’t see many other groups doing the same. I feel part of something. I’m lucky to go out and pick the brains of guys like David Horsey, Danny Willett and Peter Uihlein, all of whom have won on tour. I’m still only 20 and find things like being able to do that pretty cool.
Were there similar little ‘cool’ moments during the majors you played in?
Countless. At the US Open I had two mates with me. I played practice rounds with Rory, Lee and Darren. Then with Justin and Phil in the tournament.
What was Phil like to play with?
He was very nice. And I saw how focused he was. But he answered any questions I had. Justin was the same. He was very supportive.
Tell me about the Masters.
There is nothing like that in the world. The place is amazing. I’d love to go back as a pro. That would be a sign that I am doing well. I played with Adam Scott there. I missed a putt on the last green on the second day to miss the cut by one. I can still see his face. He was so gutted for me, which was special. I’ve found most guys to be really nice. When I got to Abu Dhabi after my good finish in South Africa I can’t tell you how many guys came up to say, ‘well played’.
So there’s no truth to the old saying after you shoot 77: ‘90 per cent of the players don’t care and the other 10 per cent wish it was 78’?
(laughs) I’ve not heard that. But it’s not surprising is it? Everyone wants to win every week. I know I do. But everyone has been nice to me so far. Maybe it will be different next year.
The general impression of your game is that you have got just about everything it takes to be successful. But there is one question: do you hit it far enough?
Yes. I get asked that a lot. And yes, I do want to get a bit bigger and hit the ball a bit farther. I will naturally anyway. And I’m not exactly short right now. My average drive is about 280 yards.
That’s below average these days though.
It is. Which is why I do need to get longer. But here’s the thing. I’m the same height as Rory. And he hits it miles past me. He has a great technique of course. But he looked a lot like me when he turned pro. So I have an obvious incentive to work as hard as he has to get bigger and stronger physically. The other thing is that my driving is well above average accuracy-wise. In South Africa I missed only two fairways in the last round. That makes a huge difference. But I am aware of the fact that I have work to do. Then again, you can almost hit it as short as you want if you are on every fairway.
OK, last question on this subject: are you going to have to add length off the tee if you are to get to where you want to be in the game?
I will. I understand how massive an advantage distance is these days. If I want to get to the very top I will have to. But I still maintain you can get to number one just by having an unbelievable short game.
Luke Donald did that, holing everything for a year. Is that a sustainable formula compared with how Rory plays?
I guess. But for me, the big thing is hitting it straight. I know you can hit it long and get away with missing a few fairways. But straight is my thing. Others have fallen into the trap of making swing changes to get longer. I won’t do that. No chance. I have good people around me to tell me not to. And if I do, I will do it correctly.
It’s a temptation though.
It is. I could go to the gym every day and get massive. But if I did that this week I wouldn’t be able to hit a ball. So it’s a long-term thing. The difficulty of it is that, when you play all over the world, there isn’t always a great gym to go to. It varies week to week. So my plan is to do a little often. It is something I am well aware of. I have a strength conditioner I see. He has given me stuff to do. And I’m working on it.