Much More Than A First Time Winner

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We hear it so often. Hes got guts, the announcer will say. A lot of character.
 
Really? We pretend to know whats inside an athlete, what makes him go, but we truly know so very little. Most of the athletically gifted'and thats pretty much all who play any sport professionally'closely guard their inner feelings. We know only what we see.
 
I saw Len Mattiace in the San Jose Airport two weeks ago on our way home from Pebble Beach. His young daughter alternately cuddled with Mom and bounded into our conversation, where shed be gleefully scooped up by her father. Len and I chatted about the chase for more distance, how everyones tinkering, searching and scratching for a new shaft or ball or head just to tack on a few more dizzying yards in the modern homerun derby that is professional golf.
 
Len was in the pack of hungry dogs still fighting to taste victorys prime cut. A decade of scraps didnt dull the desire, though, because Len rejoiced in just being around the dinner table.
 
I love this game, he told me simply. A short time later hed get on a plane and go to the next stop. Still winless. Still resolute in the quest.
 
I saw a nice, decent man. But knowing so often only what we see, I didnt yet see a champion.
 
Sunday at Riviera, 13 days removed from our encounter at Gate 73, I saw Len Mattiace break down and cry streams of tears before a roomful of people. In an interview I did with Len for Inside The PGA Tour, I asked him how his mother, Joyce, a victim of cancer in 1998, would have reacted at his long-time-in-the-making first Tour win. Hed addressed a similar query in his post victory press conference with 20 or so writers. He spoke lovingly, but remained composed.
 
Finally, the champion of the Nissan Open could hold back no longer. I always feel like shes with me, he sobbed. Im very thankful and lucky to have had her. And the tears fell, one after the other. Ive never heard a press area so quiet.
 
Joyce Mattiace died three months after she watched her son at The 1998 Players Championship. There, in the final round, Len stood tied momentarily at the jittery 17th hole with Justin Leonard. He made a clean, bold pass at the high iron and the shot looked to be true. But hed caught it too flush, and the ball bounded long into the water. Before the gasp from the gallery had even finished echoing, Len teed up another and found the bunker. From there he found the water once more.
 
Hed made an eight on the penultimate hole of what could have been his greatest moment. Television didnt miss a single, painful second. With his dying mother watching from a wheelchair, a very powerful, bittersweet and profoundly human drama had played out for so many to see.

That spring day four years ago, we did get more than a glimpse of Len Mattiace. We saw a man handle fates cruel blow with dignity. There was a fundamental niceness to him, with pleasing features and an easy smile to go along a slender, unthreatening build, like Jimmy Stewart.
 
Unfortunately, sports being what it is, Len would disappear to a degree, only in the sense that he failed to consistently contend after The Players. So he simply fell from our consciousness. It happens all too frequently.
 
And so when Len finally stepped out of that pack to win at Hogans Alley, I wondered how many people truly remembered the measure of the man we saw at Ponte Vedre. Or would he be viewed as just another first time winner, a relatively non-descript journeyman whod be quickly forgotten? I thought about our encounter at the airport just two weeks prior. And then, long after CBS had signed off, he broke down.
 
My wife and I talk about how if we can just be half the parent that my mother was, he said haltingly, wed be grateful.
 
Now I saw much more than a golfing champion. In a world where we really know so little about those whose exploits we cover and watch as fans, it was a startling and breathtaking moment on The PGA Tour.