ORLANDO, Fla. – Brandon Matthews has just one wood in his bag: the driver.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
He carries the ball 325-330 yards with off the tee, and he hits his 2-iron 290. With those numbers, what golf course is ever going to require him to hit a 3-wood or a 5-wood?
But it’s not his impressive length that has him making his first ever PGA Tour start; it’s an act of compassion.
Playing this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational on a sponsor exemption, Matthews is the young man who went viral last November for his interaction with a fan at the Argentina Open. Putting for birdie on the third playoff hole, with a spot in this year’s Open Championship at Royal St. George’s on the line, Matthews missed when someone yelled in the middle of his stroke.
"I got over the putt, took the putter back and heard kind of a yelp or a scream," Matthews told GolfChannel.com the following day.
"I kind of flinched on the putt and immediately knew I missed it."
With the tournament and The Open exemption lost, a furious Matthews headed to the locker room. It was there that he was approached by the event’s tournament director, Claudio Rivas, who informed Matthews that the fan who yelled was a man with Down syndrome, Juanchi, who had lost control of his emotions watching the drama unfold.
"His switch – his face changed. He almost broke into tears," as Rivas described it.
That’s when Matthews immediately went out on the golf course to find Juanchi, give him a hug, sign a glove and reassure him that the miss wasn’t his fault.
"I didn’t want anyone to be mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at himself. I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t mad. That’s all I wanted to do,” Matthews said at the time.
The Scranton, Pennsylvania native and Temple University product had grown up around disability – his mother had managed group homes and his best friend had a sister with Down syndrome – and he was just trying to do what he thought was right. He didn’t expect any attention for it; but he certainly got it, with the story blowing up on social media and making national headlines back in the United States.
“It was overwhelming,” Matthews said. “It was funny, my one buddy (PGA Tour Latinoamerica pro Matt Ryan) came up to me afterwards and he goes, ‘Oh, this is going to pick up and stuff.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not. We’re in Buenos Aires. Nothing is going to come of this. I’m just happy I was able to make that guy happy and putt a smile on his face.’ So I had no idea that it was going to get as big as it did.”
Three months later, Matthews finds himself prepping for his PGA Tour debut – and another crack at punching his ticket to Royal St. George's (the API is part of The Open Qualifying Series and three spots will be awarded Sunday). He’ll go off in Thursday afternoon’s last tee time at 1:19 p.m. ET with Hank Lebioda and Matthew NeSmith. And on Tuesday, before his debut, that same fan from Argentina sent Matthews this message:
Right now, Matthews has full status on PGA Tour Latinoamerica. He won on that circuit in 2017 and spent the last two years playing the Korn Ferry Tour before back issues ruined his 2019 campaign. From the Kansas City Classic in May to the regular-season-ending Ellie Mae Classic in August, Matthews either withdrew or missed the cut in 11 consecutive KFT events.
It was at the end of that stretch that he began working with Australian swing coach Dale Gray. Gray, now the director of instruction at Chelsea Piers in New York City, was an understudy to Hank Haney from 1996-2008 and got a good, long look at greatness, having a front-row seat to Tiger Woods in his prime. When he first encountered Matthews, one thing became apparent.
“Speed is the one thing you can’t teach,” Gray said Tuesday at Bay Hill. “And he has a lot of it.”
Matthews, at the time, was reaching 130 mph in swing speed with a driver, and he’s routinely between 190-195 mph in ball speed. For reference, 2018-19 Tour leader Cameron Champ clocked in at a personal-best 193.61 mph last season.
“I got one up pretty comfortably to 196 yesterday on the range,” Matthews said with a smile.
Gray’s goal, then, was actually to rein in his new student and to put less strain on the 25-year-old’s ailing lower back. With a rebuilt swing that has him fanning the clubface a little less and getting a bit more down the line at the top of his backswing, Matthews has ratcheted down his swing speed into the 125-127 mpg range in an effort to narrow his dispersion. He’s also remade his bag a bit, removing fairway woods and replacing them with long irons and wedges. He goes driver-2 iron-3 iron at the longer end and carries four wedges – 62, 57, 52 and 48 degrees – at the shorter end. That last one, the 48-degree pitching wedge, flies a comfortable 150. A stock 8-iron is closer to 180.
“He’s in the top one percent of the game in terms of speed,” Gray said.
Making his first competitive start since the Latinoamerica finale in December, Matthews is looking to do more than just have fun and get some experience this week at Bay Hill. He’s looking to parlay his exemption into something more. Asked about his upcoming schedule, he answered: “Yeah, after this, hopefully Valspar.”
A top-10 finish here would qualify him for next week’s event at Innisbrook. It’s borderline cocky stuff, talking on Tuesday about a top-10 finish in your PGA Tour debut, but it didn’t come off that way. He’s just a confident guy who hits it as long as anybody and who feels like he’s ready for the chance to prove himself.
“I’ve worked my whole life for this,” he said. “Every time I’ve gotten to, let’s say, a little bit bigger stage, whether it was college, to the Latinoamerica Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, I felt like I was ready. I felt like I was good enough to compete. I have a lot of self-belief in my game. I truly feel like this is where I belong and where I need to be.”