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Despite playoff pain, Mattiace cherishes Masters experience

Len Mattiace
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Their names remain etched in the annals of Masters history; though, not necessarily in the portion they would prefer.

Sneed. Pohl. Hoch. DiMarco. Campbell.

Players for whom a Sunday round amid the fabled pines of Augusta National brought them to the cusp of golfing immortality – but no further.

It’s been 10 years since Len Mattiace added his name to that collection, to the group of players that came tantalizingly close to slipping on a green jacket. Ten years since the hard work of a final-round 65 was undone by a double bogey on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff with eventual champion Mike Weir.

“I think I’ve always called it a 98-percent great week,” he recalled last month.

Ninety-eight percent. Remarkably close to the end goal, but ultimately falling short in the 2003 Masters.

‘It was just stressful’

The roots for his performance that week can be traced back to early 2002, when the New York native captured the Northern Trust Open for his first career PGA Tour victory. Unfortunately for Mattiace, his maiden win came in a brief period where the Masters suspended its policy of automatically inviting players who won regular PGA Tour events.

“That was a bummer, that was disappointing,” he said of missing the 2002 edition. “I had won at Riviera and played really good; I finished third at Bay Hill as well. I just didn’t get in by the qualifications.”

Baggs: Weir overcomes odds – oddities – to win 2003 Masters

A second victory later that summer in Memphis, however, was enough to secure a trip down Magnolia Lane for Mattiace the following spring. It would mark his second-career appearance at Augusta National, having missed the cut in 1988 as an amateur after making the field by virtue of his spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team the year prior.

“Every time you go there, it’s a big thrill and a great experience,” he spoke of Augusta National Golf Club. “I thought I’d be back sooner than that, that’s for sure.”

Upon arriving at Augusta that April, though, he was greeted by some of the poorest weather conditions in Masters history, which Mattiace felt put a relatively short hitter like himself at an immediate disadvantage.

As driving rains forced the postponement of practice rounds and even washed out the opening day of play Thursday, he was left to deal with hours of idle time, often a golfer’s biggest enemy.

“It was just stressful,” he said. “You’re sitting around and you’re probably thinking more than what you should be thinking. I mean, it’s just stress.”

When play finally began, with a compressed schedule both Friday and Saturday, Mattiace did little to stand out among the 93-player field. Rounds of 73-74 left him outside the top 20 heading into the third round, when a quick chat late in the day with his brother provided some timely motivation.

“With about four holes left on Saturday night, I was going around and I could have easily just kind of lost my focus, because there were some long days,” said Mattiace, who began his third round on the 10th hole. “My brother was off the sixth green and he said, ‘Hang in there, Len, make some birdies coming in.’ And just that little thing was great to hear. I end up doing that, I birdied three out of the four and put myself in position.”

A 3-under 69 Saturday brought Mattiace back to even par for the week and meant he would begin the final round tied for eighth, just five shots behind leader Jeff Maggert.

“I went back that night and just thought about what I could possibly do on Sunday,” said Mattiace, whose best career finish then was a tie for 24th at the 1997 U.S. Open. “I knew pretty much how the course was going to play, and everyone knows where the pins most likely will be. I had a game plan to just press the accelerator a little bit harder. I wanted to see if I could basically play the way I knew I could play.”

Len Mattiace

‘Things were happening for me’

The final round at the Masters carries with it added pressure – conditions far more intense than a typical Sunday on Tour. The ambiance for participants prior to the final round in 2003 was no exception.

“In that locker room before the round, it was quiet. Nobody was saying anything,” said Mattiace, who played the final round alongside Jonathan Byrd. “I kind of took a second and realized everyone was sitting at a different table, eating a sandwich, and I thought, ‘Hmm, this is a little different.’”

As he got set to begin his round Sunday, the magnitude of the situation began to sink in for Mattiace.

“I was super nervous starting. That first hole was the most nervous I had been all week,” he explained. “But as the holes got going on, things were happening for me.”

Those things included a birdie on the par-5 second, which was followed by another at the third. He remained 2 under heading to the eighth hole, where his approach to the par-5 came up short, leaving a difficult pitch.

“I had a very tight lie to a very tight pin over a big mound,” he recalled of his fourth shot. “When I hit the shot it came off just right, so I knew it was going to be close. Then by the reaction of the crowd, I had heard it went in.”

What loomed as a possible bogey just minutes prior was suddenly an unexpected birdie, the third of the day for Mattiace and one that moved him firmly into contention heading into the back nine.

Aided by a lengthy birdie at No. 10, Mattiace was 4 under, both for the day and the week, as he stood in the 13th fairway. There, he faced a shot for which he had been preparing since the year prior.

“I had been practicing that shot for months,” he said of the approach to the par-5 13th. “When I went to play the course back in December, I was terrible on a right-to-left, 5-wood shot. I was just awful.

“I knew that I would probably have that shot again during the week, and I didn’t want to be terrible. So I practiced that one a lot.”

After laying up in each of the first three rounds, Mattiace finally got a chance to put the practice to use Sunday, carving a 5-wood from 224 yards that carried the hazard in front of the green by the slimmest of margins.

Having gambled with Rae’s Creek and won, Mattiace went on to hole the short putt for eagle, which took him to 6 under and gave him sole possession of the lead – though he didn’t know it at the time. In fact, even after a birdie on 15 moved him to 7 under on a course that had yielded no better than a 66 to any player all week, Mattiace kept his eyes from any of the leaderboards lining the course.

“When I birdied 15, I just knew that I was the guy. I didn’t have to see a scoreboard; you just know,” he explained. “You know when the cameras are on you, the people are shouting stuff. You just know. So I knew going to 16, this is a bigger deal now because of what I’m doing.”

Whatever nerves may have emerged heading to the picturesque par-3, Mattiace put them to rest in time to strike an approach that barely left the flag, setting up his eighth birdie of the day.

“I do recall that shot a lot,” he said of the 5-iron that rolled to within feet of the pin. “That’s a smile. When I put my head down on the pillow, I smile about that one.”

Heading to the 72nd hole, Mattiace was still in the lead, but faced a shot that he struggled with all week.

“I think visually it’s a very intimidating tee shot,” said Mattiace, who had bogeyed the 18th hole in the second and third rounds. “If I hit the fairway, it might have been a different deal.”

Instead, he watched intently as his final regulation tee shot bled toward the trees lining the right side of the 18th fairway, settling in pine straw rather than grass.

It was only at this point, having just struck his 61st shot of the day, that Mattiace allowed himself a glance at the leaderboard.

“That gave me the information that I don’t have to do anything crazy here. I can maybe have a putt for par and see what the guys, Mike (Weir) specifically, can do,” he said of the situation facing him on the final hole. “I had no choice on 18, I was so blocked out. I didn’t have any openings.”

After punching back out into the fairway, Mattiace’s third shot carried to the back fringe behind the hole. The putt for par was a quick one – but not as quick as he anticipated.

“You’re putting away from the clubhouse so everybody knows it’s fast. It was a little down and up,” he said of the 30-foot putt that would have earned Mattiace a green jacket. “I just forgot the up part.”

After playing 17 holes without error, Mattiace was now faced with an 8-foot putt to save bogey. Despite the circumstances, his belief never wavered.

“I just had supreme, high confidence that I was going to make that putt,” he noted. “There wasn’t a doubt.”

As the surrounding gallery held its collective breath, the putt caught the side of the hole and fell. With a lone blemish on 18, Mattiace was in the clubhouse after a 7-under 65.

Then the wait began.

Len Mattiace

‘I just pulled it a little bit’

Despite the closing bogey, Mattiace had set the clubhouse lead – a number that only Weir could likely reach or surpass at that point. Though he had just played the round of his life on Sunday at Augusta National, Mattiace had little time to reflect on what he had just accomplished.

“I went into the cabin just to kind of get a sense of where I was,” he explained. “Then I met up with (swing coach) Jim McLean and we decided to go to the range and warm up, because there might be a playoff.”

When Weir holed a par putt on 18 – one that mirrored the length of Mattiace’s bogey putt nearly 40 minutes earlier – the playoff was set. For the first time since 1990, sudden death would be used to determine a winner. Both in search of their first career major title, the two remaining participants headed to the par-4 10th for the first playoff hole.

“I was way more nervous on the first tee that day than when I was in the playoff on the 10th tee,” recalled Mattiace, who like Weir found the fairway with his tee shot at the 73rd hole.

When their approach shots were struck minutes later, though, the paths of Mattiace and Weir would forever diverge.

“I hit a solid shot, I just pulled it a little bit,” Mattiace said of the 6-iron that bounded left of the 10th green, while Weir found the surface with his approach. “You don’t want to be left, but it’s not like it’s over. That’s not the place you want to be, but I thought I would go deal with it and see what I can get.”

Instead, Mattiace would soon discover he had cruelly been dealt a bad break on the game’s biggest stage. Though only a few yards off the green, his ball had come to rest directly behind a small tree, rendering a direct chip to the hole impossible.

'The odds of a ball being directly behind a tree in line with a pin,' he wondered. 'I mean, what are the odds?'

Forced to pitch well to the right of the hole, Mattiace was now faced with a lengthy par putt while Weir had a birdie try of similar length from the front of the green. However, both players were unaware that the condition of the green at “Camellia” had changed since they had played it in regulation.

Having been rolled prior to the playoff, the surface was playing even faster than it had hours earlier and both players raced their putts well past the hole. Mattiace ran his nearly off the green, though, and had to attempt his bogey putt before Weir putted for par.

Though it was one of the more pivotal putts of his career, he recalls almost nothing about the shot that essentially sealed his fate.

“I honestly don’t even remember that putt,” said Mattiace. “When I putt, things go quiet. So I do know that on that putt it was quiet, but I just don’t remember the putt.

“Maybe it’s my mind blanking it out for a certain reason, but I just don’t remember it.”

With that, his final-round comeback was over. Weir would don the green jacket minutes later, while Mattiace was left to lament what might have been.

He could never have imagined that, 10 years later, he has yet to record another top-10 finish at a PGA Tour event.

Len Mattiace

‘Hard to put a finger on it’

As a result of his runner-up at Augusta, Mattiace moved inside the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He went on to complete an otherwise solid – though unspectacular – 2003 campaign, making the cut in 14 of his remaining 17 starts, but finishing inside the top 20 only once, when he tied for 14th at the Canadian Open.

That December, though, his career took a painful turn.

“It was supposed to just be a two-day trip to enjoy with some guys,” he said. “I fell skiing; it was just a freak fall.”

The accident had catastrophic consequences for Mattiace, who tore the ACL in both knees. The injury shelved him until the following March, though in hindsight his return to competitive golf may have been premature.

“I got into a lot of bad swing habits after that accident,” said Mattiace, who posted just one top-25 finish in 25 starts during the 2004 season, missing the cut 13 times. “I was not the golfer that I really ever knew.”

One of those starts came at the Masters, where he was again eligible based on his high finish the year prior. Mattiace shot 76-75 to miss the cut in his third, and to date, final, appearance at Augusta National.

From that point, things only got worse.

He played the weekend only nine times in 34 starts during 2005, the last for which he was fully exempt on the PGA Tour. Things would bottom out in 2007, when Mattiace made 26 combined starts on the PGA and tours.

He missed the cut 24 times, including in all 10 PGA Tour events he entered.

“It was just bad swing habits that developed, and because of that I hit a ton of bad golf shots,” he explained. “It was tough; it was very tough to take.”

In the subsequent years, Mattiace has seen his schedule shift more predominantly to the ‘developmental’ circuit. He has made the cut in a PGA Tour event just three times since 2009, most recently at last year’s True South Classic, where he tied for 31st.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he explained. “If I could put a finger on it, I would have done it eight years ago.”

This season, Mattiace will again play his golf on the Tour, having started strongly with a tie for fourth in the season-opening event in Panama in February. At 45 years old, he remains firmly committed to a return to the PGA Tour.

“I’ve been playing better than I ever have,” said Mattiace, who this week is in the field for the Brasil Classic in Sao Paulo. “It’s a challenge to me because of my age and where I’ve been the last few years, but I think with a little bit of good play, I can get on a roll.”

For Mattiace, the passion and determination that drove him earlier in his career remain as potent as ever.

“If I stopped playing, I’d be a fool because I still have those things driving me,” he added. “And I’d probably be unhappy.”

Though he currently ranks No. 898 in the world, Mattiace remains confident that his play is moving in the right direction.

“This game is all about peaks and valleys,” he noted astutely. “I feel like I’m on the upswing right now.”

Len Mattiace

‘You want to beat all the guys’

Ten years removed from his fleeting moment on the landscape of major championship golf, Mattiace has had time to put the experience of 2003 into what he feels is the proper perspective.

“I played fantastic that Sunday, and I think 99 percent of the golfers who compete, they’ll never do that,” he said of his final round. “Just by the numbers, they’ll never do that. So it’s an accomplishment in that sense.”

At the same time, some of the wounds from having come so close to a major title remain slow to heal. Rarely does golf pit one individual directly against another; the sting of having fallen short in just that setup still lingers for Mattiace.

“That’s sport. You want to win the playoff; you want to beat the other guy. You want to beat all the guys,” Mattiace explained. “That playoff, to this day, it’s very tough to know that on that level, I lost. I lost and I didn’t win it. That bites at me.”

Now he finds himself among a select group of players for whom one shot – whether a missed putt Thursday or an errant drive Sunday – ultimately meant the difference between winning and losing one of golf’s biggest events.

“Obviously for people who lose playoffs in majors, what could have been is huge. It’s huge,” said Mattiace, one of 30 players to lose a major championship playoff in the last 30 years. “People who win majors, they receive all those benefits and all the great stuff, not to mention part of history that you were on the winning side.

“But when you lose … it’s tough to take when you’re that close,” he added.

The pain of his near miss aside, Mattiace still looks back fondly upon that one week 10 springs ago, when each facet of his game aligned at just the right time. A decade later, the disappointment of the playoff loss does not match the joy derived from the overall experience.

“It’s a great thing to look back on, because it was a performance that was very, very good,” he noted. “You’d be a fool to not look back and realize what a great week that was.”