Mattiace Falls Rises for Masters Return

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When the little birdies stopped tweeting around his head, he thought: Oh, no!
 
His wife had warned him: Dont you come back and make me have to take care of you as well as the kids.
 
And what does he do? He takes a head-over-heels, double-ACL-shattering, knee-cap-rupturing fall right into Gimpville.
 
I wasnt really thinking about anything when I was tumbling in the snow, said Len Mattiace. But afterwards I was thinking: Now I have to call my wife and tell her what happened.
 
In December of last year, a spry and anxious Mattiace went on a skiing trip in Vail, Col., with five of his buds. He came back home to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., double bound at the knees, unable to walk without the support of crutches, and in the doghouse with his wife.
 
He tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in both of his knees and dislocated his right kneecap.
 
My legs went in kind of a split position, and I went end-over-end, said the self-assessed 14-handicap skier. It wasnt like I was jumping or going fast.
 
I was playing the white tees. Ill move up to the forward tees now.
 
It wasnt the worst thing that had ever happened to Mattiace, but he could think of a million things more that ranked higher on his happiness scale ' and few things more so than what transpired a year ago at Augusta National.
 
Youre probably all-to-familiar with that story by now: Mattiace, playing in his first Masters Tournament in a decade and a half, shoots 65 in the final round to force a sudden-death playoff with Mike Weir, which he eventually loses on the first hole when he makes double bogey.
 
I would have rather won, but that was a special day, he said. That was probably my best day in golf. Ive won two times, but Ive never felt the feelings that I felt around there.
 
Mattiace wept openly that Sunday. Not at his defeat and not at what could have been.
 
I really cant explain it, that Sunday night when I broke down, Mattiace said. I had a buildup of a lot of feelings and dreams that came through that day.
 
There were a lot of things going on: I probably had my best day of golf at Augusta that Sunday; I hadnt been there in 15 years; I had to wait and see what Mike was doing ' whether there was going to be a playoff or not; and then the playoff; and then it just came out of me.
 
His loss ' of tournament and composure ' proved to be his gain.
 
Today, as he walks around at an event ' and walking is the best therapy for his recovery ' and signs autographs, he cant help but see, hear and feel the encouragement his play and his emotions have elicited from fans and peers.
 
After the Masters I had probably over 1000 letters, a lot of support. All the guys out here were slapping me on the back, he said, adding that he got letters from the likes of Byron Nelson and Greg Norman.
 
When people write letters like, Thanks for the performance on Sunday, you made it a thrill for us. We enjoyed watching you perform. Those are great things for people to say.
 
People would go on to say things like, I was with my family watching you play Sunday. My father has leukemia. We cheered the telecast with you. It was special, and we are closer for it. Things like that, Im like, Wow, thats really cool; thats some really cool stuff. And Ive gotten a lot of that.
 
Mattiace had plenty of time to read all of those immensly supportive and inspirational missives while laid up for about two months.
 
After his fall, he underwent successful surgery to repair the damage. He then needed time to heal, and was put in double-lock leg braces for six, seven weeks, before going to a smaller brace for about four weeks.
 
He finally dropped the crutches in early February and gradually started walking properly on his own. He began putting Feb. 10, and then progressed to chipping, irons and, by March, his driver.
 
The early prognosis was for a full recovery in late April, meaning he would have missed the Masters: That was extremely depressing, he said.
 
But thanks to a dedicated therapeutic routine, he was able to curb that timetable.
 
In January, the thought was: Maybe I could play Augusta, because things were going better than normal, Mattiace said. And then the thought was: If I can play Augusta, then only two weeks earlier is the Players, I can make that. And then about mid-February things just kept progressing and Bay Hill was definitely in the picture.
 
And then, like the end of February I thought: The best thing the doctors said I could do is walk. And I had no pain in my knee from hitting golf shots, nothing in the swing back and through. So I thought I might as well play (Honda).
 
Mattiace has played in three events since his return. He missed his first two cuts, but tied for 33rd at The Players Championship, near his Ponte Vedra home.
 
Just like his game, his physical condition, through extensive exercising, which includes the on-course walking, is getting better by leaps and bounds each and every day.
 
I need to walk as much as possible. My knees feel real great; I dont have any pain, he said.
 
I really have to take it one day at a time. Im doing a lot of rehab to increase the strength of my knee.
 
Now the two-time PGA Tour winner will test more than his body as he returns to the site of both his greatest defeat and his greatest triumph.
 
After going 15 years between my first Masters (while attending Wake Forest University in 1988) and my last, I wasnt going to miss this one, if I could help it, he said.
 
Mattiace doesnt really harbor expectations of being able to repeat his performance of a year ago. And moreover, he doesnt spend a lot of time living in the world of What If ' What if he had parred 18? What if Weir had missed that six-footer? What if he had hit just a couple of good shots in that playoff? What if Tiger had put the green jacket on his shoulders?
 
Sometimes I think about it. It doesnt really consume me though, Mattiace said. Ive moved on; theres so many other things to do and to be able to improve on that I dont really think about the What ifs.
 
Mattiace is all about pressing forward, achieving goals, and challenging myself.
 
And dont think for a slippery second hes retired from the slopes.
 
Last years trip was with the fellas. And even though he says he wasnt going very fast, he admits there was a bit of bravado involved in the crash. This year he plans on taking another skiing escapade with the family ' where his wife can presumably keep an eye on him.
 
He will ski again! But definitely at a different venue.
 
Not Vail, he said. Maybe Utah.
 
You just can't keep this good man down.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs at mbaggs@golfchannel.com
 
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