BROOKLINE, Mass. – The comparisons to Luke Donald come easily.
Aesthetically pleasing swing.
Dazzling short game.
But at this stage in his career, 18-year-old Matt Fitzpatrick is a better player than Donald, at least on paper, and he’s now one victory away from becoming the first Englishman in more than a century to win the U.S. Amateur. After his 2-and-1 victory Saturday over Corey Conners, Fitzpatrick will face Australian Oliver Goss in Sunday’s 36-hole final at The Country Club.
This latest triumph was impressive not because it was an awe-inspiring ball-striking display, or because it was a complete domination of his opponent. Far from it. No, it was impressive because Fitzpatrick arrived to the course with far from his best game – he hit only five greens – yet was never in serious danger of losing the match.
Because after wayward iron shots, he would just play a miracle flop shot. Or hole a 20-footer for par. Or splash out of a bunker to within a few inches. Something, anything, to keep momentum on his side.
All of those saves, Conners would say later, “kind of deflated the tires a little bit.”
And by the end of the day, he might as well have been completely flat.
Two down after four holes, Fitzpatrick returned the match to all square with this run of short-game mastery: getting up-and-down from a dicey area above the fifth green; draining a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 6; sinking a 20-footer for par after a poor bunker shot; and chipping in from a near-impossible spot just off the eighth green. It was a thick lie, with a severe slope directly in front of him, but he took a big swing to cut under the ball, then crouched and watched the ball track and tumble into the cup. He punched the air with his fist. All square. Ho-hum.
Later, he played a remarkable bunker shot to a few inches on 13, sank a 10-footer for par on 15 to stay 2 up, brushed in a 8-foot par putt on 16, and closed out the match with an 18-footer on 17.
“I think my short game was probably the best of my life today,” he said.
Funny thing, then, because Fitzpatrick readily admits that his short game is by far the weakest part of his game. He’s usually accurate off the tee. He’s usually precise with his iron shots. But his work around the greens? Average, at best. And he has the stats to prove it.
In fact, his 14-year-old caddie/brother Alex is markedly better with the short shots.
“He is a short-game wizard,” Matt said. “He could get up-and-down out of a dustbin. It’s actually frightening the stuff I’ve seen him do.”
“Way better,” said Alex, who plays to a 2 handicap.
“It’s not even close,” said their father, Russell.
So how for one day, on the biggest stage of his life, with berths in the year’s first two majors at stake, did Fitzpatrick transform into the greatest strokes-saver since Seve?
Well, to understand that, consider that Matt’s first coach, Graham Walker, laid the foundation for a steady short game years ago. From there, he graduated to Pete Cowen, the European swing coach to the stars, and his assistant, Mike Walker (no relation). Before long, Fitzpatrick evolved into an elite English amateur, and last summer he captured the British Boys’ title.
Meanwhile, back in the States, the recruitment of Fitzpatrick had just begun – and, interestingly enough, it didn’t even involve Donald, at least not directly.
Three years ago, Pat Goss, the head coach at Northwestern and Donald’s longtime swing instructor, hired an assistant named David Inglis, a well-connected Scotsman who was a three-time All-American at Tulsa and a former Walker Cupper for Team GB&I.
Goss never believed that his program had done an adequate job of “capitalizing” on its relationship with Donald, its most prominent alum, who is a five-time PGA Tour winner and a former No. 1 player in the world. After all, the now-35-year-old still lives in Chicago, practices and plays at the same courses as the team, and even hosts the Wildcats’ alumni match. Goss needed someone who could build a relationship with the talented juniors overseas. Inglis filled that role.
And in finding Fitzpatrick, Goss – who came highly recommended from Cowen – saw shades of his prized player from 1997-2001.
“The comparisons, really, are the steadiness and calmness of their personality, how unfazed they get, how solidly and simply they play the game, and their control of the golf ball,” Goss said when reached by phone. “They just don’t bomb it, chase it, find it and wedge it from the rough. They play the game.”
Goss cautions that there is much room for improvement with Fitzpatrick, who will begin practicing with the Wildcats in three weeks. Still just 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, yes, he needs to get longer off the tee and develop a higher ball flight. But of course he’ll get bigger, stronger, faster. At Northwestern he’ll have access to a strength-and-conditioning coach. He can meet with a nutritionist. Donald packed on 20 pounds of muscle while in college.
This version of Matt Fitzpatrick – the baby-faced 18-year-old who still gets stopped by security convinced he’s just a caddie or a spectator, the world’s No. 2-ranked amateur who can make par from anywhere – is plenty good enough to become the first Englishman since 1911 (Harold Hilton) to win the U.S. Amateur.
“Everything about his game is just so solid,” said Adam Ball, Fitzpatrick’s quarterfinal opponent. “I think he’s going to do big things someday.”
Is Sunday soon enough?