U.S. Am champ Fitzpatrick faces new tests - in college


BROOKLINE, Mass. – The texts were rolling in, 35 and counting, but this message caught Matt Fitzpatrick’s eye.

With a lesson scheduled for next Saturday in England, his coach, Mike Walker, tapped out a note in the wake of the U.S. Amateur final:

So, what on earth do we work on now?

Good question. 

For seven days here, Fitzpatrick left little doubt as to who was the best player in the 113th U.S. Amateur, capping his week with a commanding 4-and-3 victory over Oliver Goss in Sunday’s scheduled 36-hole final at The Country Club. 

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Five of Fitzpatrick’s six matches this week were decided by the 15th hole, a dominating performance for a player who, at 18 years, 11 months and 17 days, became the fourth-youngest champion in tournament history. The new No. 1-ranked amateur in the world now has a spot in next year’s first three majors.

Even now, there are so few weaknesses in his game. Sure, Fitzpatrick will eventually need to hit the ball longer (his average drive is about 280 yards), and he needs to develop a higher ball flight. But he’ll pack muscle onto his 5-foot-9-inch, 135-pound frame – just give him a few months with the college strength-and-conditioning coach and nutritionist. 

The weakness part of his repertoire? Well, all week he hinted at a usually suspect short game. Those are exceptionally high standards, apparently, because after watching his opponent drain three putts of more than 20-plus feet in the opening 18-hole session Sunday, Goss marveled, “I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s the best putter I’ve ever seen. It was hard to watch.”

And it may only get worse for opponents. 

In three weeks, Fitzpatrick will report to Northwestern for the first day of team practice. Who is his coach for (presumably) the next four years? Pat Goss, the man largely responsible for turning Luke Donald into the short-game assassin who ascended to world No. 1. 

“Matt is starting to believe how good he is and how good he can be,” Goss said. “But he has no sense of, ‘Oh, I’ve figured it all out.’ That’s a good recipe for success.”

Not much will change once Fitzpatrick arrives in Evanston. Expectations will shift, just as they do for every national champion, but especially for one who became the first Englishman in more than a century to win the U.S. Amateur. He won’t see his girlfriend as often. He won’t have the British media “chasing” him. 

But mostly, he’ll be a normal 18-year-old kid on campus, with a full course load, late nights and good friends. 

And, finally, a primary focus on golf. 

That hasn’t been the case for the past few years, as Fitzpatrick crammed for the A-level exams. In short, they’re SATs on steroids. Students study for two years – in his case, in the subjects of geography, history and sports science – to take a test that decides their future. “They say that they’re the hardest exams that you’ll ever take,” he said. 

They consumed his life, and each year the intense studying affected his game. His father would come home from work to see Matt’s head buried in his books. Every four days or so, he would grab the clubs and practice for an hour. That’s it. He skipped many of England’s biggest amateur events to focus on his studies.

“He’s not a gifted academic, not a straight-A student,” said Fitzpatrick’s father, Russell. “He has had to work really hard to get here.”

The exam scores were announced this past Thursday, before the U.S. Amateur’s Round of 32. Fitzpatrick scrolled through his Twitter and Facebook feeds and noticed all of his friends were panicking, because, he said, “it does decide their life, really.” Where they go to school. What they’re going to pursue.

He took immense pride in preparing as well as possible (two Cs and a B), even if his path to Northwestern was clear. 

“Whatever he eventually wins,” Russell Fitzpatrick said, “that’s the best prize he’s got. A great education.”

But with so much success, so soon, at such a young age, it’s natural to wonder how long Fitzpatrick will spend in school, or whether the allure of the mega-million Tour life will prove to be too much of a temptation for another talented youngster.

The Fitzpatrick family has a four-year college plan in place, however, no matter how impressive and mature Matt has seemed this summer in earning low-amateur honors at the British Open and winning the U.S. Amateur, all in a four-week span. 

“This might be as good as it ever gets,” Russell Fitzpatrick said. “You just never know. Professional sport is really, really tough. I’ve seen players turn pro, and we never hear from them again. If he decides to play professional golf someday, he has no pressure because he knows he has a fallback option. If he turns pro after one year and it doesn’t work out, and he doesn’t have a degree, if he’s just a flash in the pan, then what’s he go with?”

Rest assured, Fitzpatrick is no flash in the pan, not with his textbook, repeatable swing and soft hands around the green.

On Sunday, after seven days of sun and wind, The Country Club turned into a veritable U.S. Open test. Some holes were brutally long. The greens were “rock-hard.” The rough was ankle-deep.

And Matt Fitzpatrick led for all but four of the 33 holes and defeated the 13th-ranked amateur in the world, quite handily in fact. 

So, what on earth is there to work on?

Right now, with the gold Havemeyer Trophy beside him, the answer was clear:

Not much … except, perhaps, his new college course schedule.