ORLANDO, Fla. – Don’t let the baby face fool you.
Matthew Fitzpatrick has heard all the jokes before. He knows his fresh-faced appearance makes him seem more likely to be someone’s pro-am partner on Wednesday than playing partner on Thursday.
Every time he walks by Jason Day, he still gets needled about the time last year at Doral when he forgot his players’ credential and couldn’t get past the locker room attendant until Day popped out and vouched for him.
Then there was the time at the 2014 Open Championship when someone saw him carrying around a bag of Nike balls on the range at Hoylake and thought he was Tiger Woods’ ball boy.
But as Fitzpatrick has shown through two rounds at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, looks can be deceiving.
“He looks like he’s 12,” said Harold Varner after playing alongside Fitzpatrick for the first two days at Bay Hill. “But he plays like a grown man.”
The soft-spoken Englishman has displayed a steady hand this week despite some early weather conditions that seemed more suitable for London than Orlando. An opening 67 was followed by a 3-under 69, and he sits two shots adrift of Charley Hoffman after making just two bogeys through 36 holes.
His appearance on a leaderboard might come as a surprise to some casual fans in the U.S., but at age 22 Fitzpatrick has already more than earned standing in Europe. Now he has an opportunity to let his game do the talking on this side of the Atlantic.
Does he still get carded for R-rated movies, let alone bars? Perhaps. But beneath the youthful visage lies some serious game.
“I think the image doesn’t help him gain the respect that he deserves,” said Graeme McDowell. “I’ve played with him a few times and I probably can’t get my head around how good he is, because he continues to post good numbers on big, tough golf courses.”
Those credentials include three wins already on the European Tour, highlighted by a victory at the season finale in Dubai in November that Fitzpatrick called “massive” for his confidence.
He also made his first Ryder Cup team at Hazeltine and originally burst onto the national stage when he cruised to victory at the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club.
“I think that it’s not Matt’s demeanor to put himself out there,” said Rory McIlroy. “He’s a quiet kid, and he gets his business done, and he does it very efficiently and very well.”
Fitzpatrick is used to the questions and comments, and takes them each in stride. But he’s also not in a rush to see fans – or competitors – size him up as anything but an unassuming underdog.
“I don’t really mind that. I think it’s quite funny,” he said. “I would rather that than people think, ‘Oh, he’s going to win every week.’ I can’t really imagine the sort of pressure that Rory and Jason Day and those guys have. It’s probably tough to keep up with.”
Fitzpatrick may work his way into their company before too long. He entered this week ranked No. 30 in the world and has finished T-16 at each of the season’s first two WGC events. Then there was his run up the leaderboard during the final round at last year’s Masters, when a closing 67 gave him a share of seventh place and ensured he’d make a return trip this spring.
“He’s such an unassuming lad. He looks like he’s 15 years old, still in high school,” McDowell said. “He just doesn’t look like he fits out here, even though he’s probably right now one of the top 10 or 20 players in the world.”
Fitzpatrick is now presented with an enticing opportunity this weekend as he looks to diversify his playing schedule. He has yet to earn a PGA Tour card, but his goal this season is to earn special temporary membership with eyes on a fully-fledged card for next season.
Fitzpatrick’s girlfriend, Lydia Cassada, is finishing up her degree this spring at Northwestern, and he hopes to relocate to the U.S. perhaps as soon as next year, with the plan to play a full slate on both the PGA and European tours. That specific location remains to be seen, and will likely depend on where Cassada finds a job after graduation.
Perhaps he’s not that different from a typical 22-year-old after all.
But Fitzpatrick’s options may widen considerably should he win this week at Bay Hill, where the tournament’s three-year exemption would give him status in the U.S. through August 2020.
Who knows, by then he might even look the part.
“He’s a legit player,” McDowell said. “It’s only a matter of time before he plays his way into people starting to understand that he’s the real deal.”