The mountaintop still beckons.
Len Mattiace won’t give up the long, hard climb to return to those magnificent vistas that both exhilarate and haunt him.
At 45, time may be running out in his quest to return to golf’s high ground, but his determination and drive haven’t waned.
Twenty years after he first earned his PGA Tour card at Q-School, he’s back at the final stage. He’s back looking to be among the final group of men who get to say they advanced straight from this event to the PGA Tour in the last Q-School staging as we’ve come to know it. He’s hopeful his comeback from a devastating pair of knee injuries will quicken with a successful pass through PGA West.
“The guy’s intangibles, the perseverance and determination, are just unbelievable,” says Michael Hunt, Mattiace’s swing coach for the last dozen years. “I think a lot of guys in Len’s situation would have stopped, would have said, `OK, that’s it, I’m done,’ and would have retired. That’s never been a thought with Lenny. His goal isn’t just to get back on Tour, but to be a threat out there.”
Mattiace’s 4-under-par 68 at Q-School Friday kept him in the mix for a chance to return to the Tour next year. He is tied for 66th with three more days to move within the top 25 and claim fully exempt status in 2013.
Mattiace hasn’t played the PGA Tour full time since 2006, and he hasn’t been in his best form since the end of 2003, since he crashed while skiing on a mountain slope in Vail, Colo., and blew out both of his knees.
“That was devastating, to have knee injuries like that,” Mattiace said. “It took me off the golf map, but I feel great now. I feel really strong where I’m physically in a good position. I’m looking forward to meeting the challenges ahead.”
Mountaintops literally and figuratively define Mattiace’s career.
He hiked some impressive peaks in the game, and he crashed from some of them, too.
Twice Mattiace won PGA Tour events, claiming the Nissan Open and the FedEx St. Jude’s Classic in 2002.
He would climb as high as 25th in the Official World Golf Rankings.
He looked like he was going to reach one of the game’s most impressive heights when he made a run at winning The Masters in the spring of 2003, shooting a terrific 65 in the final round to force a playoff with Mike Weir, only to lose after hooking a 6-iron behind a tree at the first hole of sudden death. The loss brought him to tears afterward as he spoke to reporters.
Back in 1998, Mattiace scaled to another grand height at The Players Championship in his hometown of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. It’s a special place to him having grown up just a two-minute drive from the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. On that Sunday of that year, he looked like he was going to write a storybook finish when he stepped to the 17th tee one shot behind Justin Leonard, but his dream turned nightmarish. He hit a 9-iron in the water at the infamous island hole, and he would hit another in the water from the greenside bunker, stumbling away with a quintuple-bogey 8.
The loss was as emotional as the folks at TPC Sawgrass have ever seen.
Mattiace’s defeat broke a whole community’s heart with Len’s mother, Joyce, in a wheelchair watching near a sky box at the 17th tee. She was near death from an inoperable cancer.
“Everyone talks about the shot at 17, but Len made nine birdies that day,” Hunt said. “That’s pretty impressive on that golf course.
“Len’s an emotional guy who puts it all out there. It was a tough blow, but he’s a fighter. What happened that day would lead to him winning PGA Tour events.”
What happened on that mountain slope in Vail in December of ’03 would lead him to the toughest challenge of his professional career. He tore the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees, the medial collateral ligaments, too. He also dislocated his right knee cap, and he fractured a bone in his left knee.
In the wake of the accident, Mattiace didn't reveal just how devastating the injuries really were, he just put his head down and worked to make it back. Remarkably, just four months after the fall, he was back at the Masters.
“It was pretty amazing, but he probably shouldn’t have done it,” Hunt said. “He was hobbling.”
Mattiace pushed himself back too quickly. His body wasn’t ready, and he played that year adapting his swing to his weaknesses and pain.
“I came back way too soon,” Mattiace said. “It took a long time to get the strength and stability back, and I developed some bad habits. It took me a long time to work those out.”
Mattiace played 25 PGA Tour events in ’04, missing 13 cuts. His struggles would lead him to play the Web.com Tour over these last half dozen years, where he missed 13 of 18 cuts this year.
Through it all, Mattiace has focused on where he believes his climb will lead him. His work with Hunt and Wayne DeFrancesco is basically training to climb a mountain of a challenge.
“I feel like I can play a lot better golf than what I have in the past,” Mattiace said. “That’s why I continue to play and practice. I’ve worked as hard as I ever have in trying to meet these challenges, and I think I can do it.”
Hunt marvels at Mattiace’s resolve and his optimism. In so many ways, Mattiace still has the passion he had coming out of Wake Forest as a promising young prospect. Hunt saw how that skiing accident crushed his player’s knees, but not his player’s spirit.
“This is all he has ever wanted to do,” Hunt said. “All his work coming up as a young player was with the idea that he was going to make it on the PGA Tour, and he was going to win. He did make it, and he did win. That’s how he’s working now, and how he’s taking the setbacks and challenges. He’s tried to learn from every one of them and just keep plugging along.”
Mattiace does so knowing his wife, Kristen, and his 15-year-old daughter, Gracee, and 11-year-old daughter, Noelle, are his biggest fans back in his Jacksonville home. Gracee’s now a national level junior volleyball player. Noelle is into theater and swimming.
“They root me on,” Mattiace said. “When I leave to play, I get hugs and kisses and they tell me, `Knock ‘em dead.’ They’re huge supporters for me.”
They’re fuel for this climb to the mountain that still beckons.