Masters Rookie: Matt Wallace

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A few years ago Matt Wallace applied for tickets to watch the Masters. He didn’t get them. This year he’s driving down Magnolia Lane with a player’s badge and has the chance to become the first rookie in more than 40 years to win the Green Jacket

-- We caught up with Matt Wallace ahead of his first trip to Augusta National

Matt Wallace can barely contain his excitement as he hotfoots it across The Belfry car park to meet us. The smile has barely left his face since he opened his Masters invitation live on TV, and now he's embracing every opportunity to show off his BMW in front of our cameras.

"This is so cool!" says the 28-year old from Hillingdon – who celebrates his birthday on Masters Friday. Get him talking about his journey to Augusta National, and you realise that Wallace's happy-go-lucky personality is simply a by-product of being able to live the life of a character on a Tiger Woods video game.

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"I've won at Augusta hundreds of times on there!" he says, before scoffing at the sheer absurdity of how ridiculous that might sound. The speed at which he talks is almost a metaphor for how quickly his life has changed. Few even knew who he was at the start of 2016, when he was ranked 1,170th in the world and without a pro win to his name.

Now, he's a four-time European Tour winner who will have a private jet waiting to take him from the US Open at Pebble Beach to Germany to defend one of the three titles he won last year...

"It's mental," he says. "I'll never be that guy who just shrugs stuff like that off."

Such perks are a world away from Matt Wallace when he was in his late teens, working at Hollister and wondering whether to even continue with golf. It was around that time that he enquired about a job with ISM and applied for tickets to watch the Masters. He didn't get either, yet now finds himself being managed by the former and with an invite to play in the latter. Is it any wonder that he can't stop smiling?...

***

I never expected this, and still don't expect this. I'm 36th in the world. But when you think of the bigger picture, there's 35 better golfers in the world than me and that annoys me. So, that's what pushes me. I just want to keep getting better. When I didn't get tickets to watch the 2012 Masters, I just shrugged it off by saying 'oh well, I'll just have to play in it instead'. People probably thought I was a bit deluded. Knowing I'm going to be playing there now... it is surreal.

When I got my invite on TV, I remember looking at the envelope and thinking, that's nice writing. This is a pretty special letter. As soon as I opened it, I was like, "that's cool". It's funny because you've seen it so many times, and know what it looks like. But seeing your name on it is as special as knowing you've qualified for it.

At the start of 2018, I was just trying to keep my card. I was never thinking about the Masters. When I did win in India, that kind of set me up for the rest of the year. Finishing tied second at the DP World Tour Championship then capped off my season exactly how I wanted to. I've been able to continue that form into 2019 with a 15th and 18th place finish in South Africa and a second-place finish in Dubai. (Since then, he finished 6th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, T30 at The Players at T40 at the WGC-Dell Match Play). 

Everything in golf is surprising right now, and I'm loving it. I reckon I'll feel like that for the rest of my life. It still doesn't feel normal, playing with people like Rory and DJ. It's bloody cool, isn't it? If I could play with Tiger on Sunday, there's a good chance I would be in contention and that would be another one ticked off the bucket list.

Somewhere down the line, I'm going to try and get a practice round with Justin Thomas. I want to compete with these guys and prove myself. I think I've shown enough in my career already to prove that I can contend anywhere in the world. I need to improve my links golf, but I worked really hard before the Dunhill Links last year and led after day one. I finished 22nd, so that was encouraging.

I played with Padraig Harrington at The Open last year and though he played terribly for 14 holes, he was still level par because he kept getting up and down from everywhere. That's what wins you Opens and Major championships. It's not about flushing it and shooting 18 under all the time. You've got to grind, and I've definitely got that in the locker.

I was practising with Thomas Bjorn in Dubai and he told me to go and find an old head because Augusta is such a strategic course. I've heard enough stuff already and I'm lucky that Dave [McNeilly], my caddie, has been there multiple times and knows everything. He's come second there, and Nick Price shot the course record with Dave on the bag.

"What I'm buzzing about is getting a practice round in on Sunday with Sir Nick Faldo. I asked him and he was happy to oblige, so that will be really special," Matt had said at the time. "Dave caddied for him there so they'll have some good stories, which should be fun."

I've been picking up little tips every week. On the 12th hole, you aim in the middle of the bunkers because if you're long or short, you've still got a chance of getting up and down. Whereas if you aim right, you bring the water into play. I had Glen Murray, Sergio's old caddie, on the bag for two weeks in South Africa so I was speaking to him a lot about the Masters. I asked him if my fade is good around there. Everyone speaks a lot about needing to draw it, but he said the way I hit it is perfect. Jack Nicklaus didn't do too badly with a fade around there, did he?

All four of my European Tour wins have come at courses I've never played before. There's enough technology out there that I never feel like I'm at a disadvantage. A big shout out to 15th Club, who get all my data to me.

When I finished fourth in the Rolex Series in Italy last year, I shouldn't have been anywhere near the top of the leaderboard, but it was thanks to them. They told me I needed to practise my 100-150 yard shots because if you're driving it well, you're going to have a lot of those yardages. I then did a combined test on Trackman, and got 83 per cent on the Tuesday and 94 per cent on the Wednesday. I then found myself leading after three rounds. So, I know I've got the preparation in place and I'm sure the Masters won't be any different.

In my first Open last year I missed a three-footer on 17 for par and missed the cut by one. I also left my putt on the last in the jaws from 30ft for birdie. I was like, "dammit!" I wasn't very chatty for the rest of the afternoon. But that's who I am. I want it so much.

I probably will be leaning on Dave, but no more than normal. Yes, I might give him a hard time about something, but he would rather have someone with that fire and passion. It's just in my nature to give it everything I've got and get the best out of myself and him. There isn't a hole in the world that I can't birdie.

matt wallace with caddie

We might play defensive on a few holes at Augusta, but golf is a game of knowing the situation you're in. That's why I love leaderboard watching. When I was on the Alps Tour, I used to get the referees to tell me what the scores were. They were like, 'nobody does that'. But I wanted to know if I needed to attack.

Having no expectations is a massive thing for me. But I hope and I don't believe it's going to be my last time playing the Masters. I'd love to do what Danny Willett has done, and buy a house out there, knowing you're going to keep coming back for the rest of your life.

Funnily enough, I'm actually staying in Louis Oosthuizen's house of 2017 and Danny Willett's house of 2016. Hopefully, that's a good omen!