Matt Fitzpatrick will be one of six amateur golfers lining up at the Masters this week
The 19-year-old qualified by winning last year's U.S. Amateur Championship
Fitzpatrick made the cut at last year's British Open and was leading amateur
He has turned his back on a U.S. college scholarship to focus on his game
The scene: Muirfield’s short-game practice area last July. It’s Open Championship week and a boy who looks about 14 is playing from the bunker next to Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald. Only his girlfriend is watching him: all cameras are focused on the two British stars.
Two children are stopping every player leaving the practice ground, asking for autographs. When it’s his turn, the young man pauses, smiles and signs. They thank him.
He’s just started to walk away when one of the children calls after him: “Excuse me, Mr. …” – the player stops and turns – “…but who are you?”
With a slightly shy smile he replies simply, “Matt Fitzpatrick.”
The children are not alone. When Fitzpatrick practices on the Muirfield range, an official mistakes him for Tiger Woods’ ball-boy.
That most certainly won’t be happening at Augusta National this week.
For Fitzpatrick – who still looks much younger than his 19 years – has made a big impression since those days of mistaken identity.
Not that he’s changed his modest, courteous demeanor. Rather, his achievements and actions on and off the course have spoken loudly enough of a rich talent and a steely-quiet determination.
First, the young British Open qualifier from Sheffield went on to make the cut at Muirfield, then to win the Silver Medal for best amateur.
The following month he traveled to Boston and became the first Englishman in 102 years to claim the U.S. Amateur trophy.
Then he caused just as big a stir by leaving a top U.S. college golf scholarship after just one term. Northwestern and its coach Pat Goss had guided former world No. 1 Luke Donald, but Fitzpatrick decided the Illinois university wasn’t for him and didn’t return from his Christmas holiday back home in Sheffield.
“The last couple of weeks of university I had a lot of time to think,” he told CNN’s Living Golf at his Hallamshire golf club in Sheffield. “Just studying in my room and I wasn’t doing much else.
“I wanted to take my golf as far as I could and I felt like it was hard to keep it progressing. I was almost doing more school work than golf.”
His change of heart lies partly in that clear focus, partly in the chronology.
He’d signed his letter of intent with Northwestern after he’d won the British Boys’ Championship in 2012. Back then, he could only dream of qualifying for the Open, winning the Silver Medal and beating the world’s best to claim the U.S. Amateur.
But it happened, life changed and plans had to be rethought.
The crucial point was that his U.S. Amateur victory had opened many doors. Invitations to three of the four majors this year, including The Masters. Starts on the PGA Tour. A place at the Scottish Open. He could start to put together a schedule that would be the envy of many young pros.
He’s also had overtures from top agents, including Tiger’s. They know a winner when they see one.
For beyond the raw talent, when you talk to Fitzpatrick’s parents and others who’ve seen him win at every level from Hallamshire Club Championship upwards, they all speak of two or three other qualities critical for a career in golf. His dedication. His response to pressure: lifting his game when others might crumble. And his ability to think himself round a course.
He puts the latter down to his dad, Russell.
“I would always remember lectures coming back from tournaments and he would say, ‘Why did you hit that club there, there was no need.’ And I’d look back and think, ‘Well, he’s right.’ “
Despite the discussions with agents and top players, Fitzpatrick doesn’t yet know when he’ll turn professional. In part it’s so he can take up his invites to the Masters, U.S. Open and his home Open.
And in part because, as he says, “I don’t know if I’m ready yet … I think I have a lot of room for improvement. But if you have a top-10 at the U.S. Open or the British Open you sort of have to re-evaluate I guess.”
His immediate goal? “I would like to be the lowest amateur for all three majors.”
And so to the first of these this week at Augusta National. Fitzpatrick will be sleeping in the Crow’s Nest, the traditional lodging place in the Augusta clubhouse reserved for invited amateurs.
He’s already played a few practice rounds and can’t wait to get started. It’s a course that demands patience, strategy and a great short-game.
On that basis Fitzpatrick must have a decent chance of following last year’s 14-year-old sensation Guan Tianlang of China, and making the cut.
If he does, it would be yet another remarkable achievement in a remarkable nine months.
Not that he’d shout about it: the large contingent over from Hallamshire, led by his parents, would do that for him.
Fitzpatrick himself, the quiet young man from the city of steel, would be knuckling down again, taking nothing for granted in this fickle game, just focusing on the next step to wherever his talent can take him.