TROON, Scotland – Matthew Southgate’s dream of playing another Open never felt further away than a year ago Friday.
It was July 15, 2015, when he underwent surgery for testicular cancer. The day after the procedure, he was slumped on the couch, watching wall-to-wall coverage of the first round of The Open, broken, unable to walk, his lower abdomen ravaged. A struggling mini-tour player, he relived his own experience the previous year at Royal Liverpool and assumed that his playing career was over.
Turns out it was just getting started.
The 27-year-old Englishman has returned to The Open – nearly a year to the day after his surgery – in the best form of his life.
“Mentally, and what’s in there,” he said, pointing to his heart, “that’s what’s gotten me back here.”
Southgate’s life flipped upside down when he felt a lump in the shower. He saw the doctor immediately, and as he awaited the results of his scan, he played a Challenge Tour event in Germany. He finished fifth that week, only to receive the scary diagnosis upon returning home to Southend-on-Sea. Surgery followed a week later.
Southgate will be the first to admit that he’s underachieved in his career. He experienced plenty of success as a junior, and even as a young pro, but not much since. He was a frequent Q-School casualty with a world ranking in the 1000s. Before this year, he had played the European Tour full-time only twice, most recently in 2013, and never came close to retaining his card. He played poorly at the Hoylake Open in ’14 and promised himself that he’d earn another player’s badge, someday.
“I’ve had ability to have the results I’ve had recently a long time ago,” he said, “but it’s taken, for some reason, a long time for those results to come out. My mindset wasn’t quite strong enough.”
Life on the Challenge Tour was unglamorous, playing a schedule that included stops in Kenya, Slovakia and Austria. In a 140-player field, Southgate usually needed to finish in the top 40 just to make any money. A few missed cuts in a row would make a serious dent in his earnings. The co-sanctioned events, with more cash on offer, turned into his majors, and he often put too much pressure on himself to perform.
“The financial side of things was an absolute nightmare,” he said.
And so when he heard the diagnosis, and the uncertain timetable for a recovery, he thought that his career was finished, that he’d have to find a real job, that he’d be reduced to trying to qualify each summer for The Open, nothing more. He was 26, hesitant to ask his parents to keep him afloat for much longer. And besides, his family was already coping with the news that his 2-year-old niece, Hattie, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“It wasn’t the best time of my life,” he said.
But Southgate was fortunate. The cancerous cells in his testicle hadn’t spread and were completely removed during surgery. Though he couldn’t walk for two weeks, he was back on the range about two months later, against the wishes of his doctors and parents.
“The boy just loves golf,” said his father, Ian. “Always has.”
While recovering, Southgate used his girlfriend’s clubs because his felt too heavy. Shifting his weight onto his left side was painful. Walking 18 holes was exhausting. Unable to hammer drives or hit towering irons, he changed his strategy and approach, nursing his ball around the course. But by September, he had returned to competition, navigating all three stages of European Tour qualifying school, the final step a six-round marathon at hilly PGA Catalunya Resort in Spain. He finished sixth to earn another promotion to the big leagues.
“That extra little bit of fight was what got me over the line compared to others who were just playing for a card,” he said. “I was playing for personal reasons.”
It was a remarkable comeback story, but real life intervened this spring, and he missed five consecutive cuts before finding his groove. In May, at the Irish Open, he finished fourth – his first top-10 on tour in five-plus years as a pro – and broke down in tears on the 18th green. The much-needed paycheck secured his card.
Less unexpected, at least to Southgate, was what happened two weeks ago at Royal Cinque Ports, where he shot rounds of 70-66 to medal at his Open qualifier.
“I feel like the attitude I took to the first tee there was a stronger mindset and a stronger passion than anybody else in that field, with an equally good golf game as anybody in the field,” he said. “And so it wasn’t a surprise, no.
“That might sound arrogant, but it’s the same mentality I took at Q-School: I wasn’t going to accept second-best. You’re not going to beat me today. This is my day. I’m playing in The Open.
“I got so headstrong that I made five birdies in the first nine holes, and as I walked to the 10th tee it never crossed my mind that I was going to mess this up. There’s not going to be any mistakes. I’m going to get over the line. I’m going to hit fairways and greens, and I’m going to get that player’s badge. That passion will be there forever with this certain tournament.”
Instead, what has surprised Southgate most over the past few months is the outpouring of support. Each week, it seems, he will receive Facebook messages from men all over the world who had stumbled upon his story and turned around their lives. Maybe they got tested for the first time because Southgate did. Or perhaps they thought their life was ruined and now, after seeing Southgate thrive post-surgery, they’re filled with hope.
“I always felt like I was playing just for me, solely for me,” he said. “It was always for me, so that when I climbed into bed at night, I could feel like I’d played good golf and achieved for me. But as soon as a couple of those messages hit, I realized this is bigger than me. This has nothing to do with me. This becomes life-changing stuff for people I’ve never met.”
And so Southgate, who has been given the all-clear sign from doctors, signed on with a charity called Ballboys, a testicular cancer awareness organization, in hopes of spreading the word about testing. His message has been simple: A healthy life is well worth the 30 seconds of awkwardness.
“I’m glad that’s a period of my life that I can put behind me,” he said, “and now I can just focus on my golf.”
And an Open he never imagined he would play.