BROOKLINE — It is one of those golf stories that wafted in unexpectedly — an afterthought to the man who delivered it, Billy Foster, but a totally rich and delightful one to these ears.
Imagine turning down the opportunity to caddie in the Masters, something Lorne Duncan did in 2014. It had been arranged by Foster, who was looking out for his “fellow Yorkshireman” — US Amateur winner Matt Fitzpatrick — to hook him up with Duncan, a veteran bagman. Only Duncan said no.
Pray tell, why?
“Because he couldn’t wear sandals,” shrugged Foster.
Perplexing, yes, but we’ll table a discussion on that for another day and suggest things went quite well that Masters for young Mr. Fitzpatrick. Foster lined up another quality pinch hitter, Ricky Elliott of Northern Ireland, whose fulltime commitment is to four-time major winner Brooks Koepka.
Then, a few years later, Foster took the bag himself and the Yorkshiremen have fared quite well, thank you — Fitzpatrick has seven wins in Europe, one in Asia, and on the PGA Tour his knuckles’ calluses have calluses because he’s knocked on the door so feverishly. (For the record, he’s been second twice, third once, and top 10 on 19 other occasions, though he remains winless.)
Now Foster isn’t the type to emulate Duncan’s demand for sandals, and it’s a good thing, too. With Fitzpatrick these days, you best slip into your long-distance walking shoes.
“His distance has been coming,” said Foster. “But it’s really kicked in the last couple of weeks.”
Surely, it was in synch in Friday’s second round of the US Open at The Country Club when Fitzpatrick didn’t just hold his own in a pairing with Dustin Johnson, he stole the show.
“When I saw I was playing with DJ, part of me was thinking, ‘Don’t try and go after it when DJ hits,’ " chuckled Fitzpatrick.
Countless are the glories in which the game of golf is wrapped, but this has always been tops — what gets measured is not your height and weight but your passion and skill. Or, as Arnold Palmer once said, “success in this game depends less on strength of body than strength of mind and character.”
Thus, to watch Fitzpatrick blister a handful of drives past his bigger and stronger playing competitor on a pure and majestic championship stage was pure joy and validation for what you love about this game. Dramatic were the tee balls at the par-4 first (Fitzpatrick 318, Johnson 301); par-4 fourth (Fitzpatrick 342, Johnson 336), the par-4 10th (Fitzpatrick 316, Johnson 299); the par-4 15th (Fitzpatrick 343, Johnson 311).
Now there were other reasons why Fitzpatrick’s level-par 70 pushed him to 2-under 138 and higher on the leaderboard than Johnson (3-over 73 to sit at 1-over 141), but certainly the added length he has been working on is a big factor.
“Hitting the drives I have hit this week and seeing where he’s hit his has been quite eye-opening for me,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s great for me to give me more confidence.”
Against a backdrop of so much unrest and turmoil in the pro golf world these days, Fitzpatrick offers a proper presence that is the picture of composure. Even as his drives have picked up layers of explosiveness, the 27-year-old from Suffield, England, is quiet and reserved. He doesn’t burst into view, he saunters. He doesn’t pump his fists emphatically, he crouches down to fist-bump a young kid on the way to the tee box at the par-4 seventh.
“He is a good lad,” said Foster, whose opinion packs enormous weight. From Seve Ballesteros to Darren Clarke to Thomas Bjorn to Lee Westwood, Foster has carried for the best and on the biggest and brightest stages.
In other words, he knows of what he speaks, so when Foster tells you that Fitzpatrick “feels comfortable on tough golf courses,” let it factor into your respect for the Englishman, who will head into the weekend in the thick of things at The Country Club.
If that sounds familiar, it should. As an 18-year-old, Fitzpatrick won the US Amateur at TCC in 2013 so, yes, his comfort level is off the charts here. Trying to keep things pretty much consistent to what they were nine years ago, Fitzpatrick again accepted the gracious invite from TCC members and local residents Will and Jennifer Fulton to stay with them. And making things even more like ‘13, Fitzpatrick has his parents, Russell and Sue, and his brother, Alex, with him.
There is a charm to Fitzpatrick’s story that is easy to root for and if you sprinkle in some historical footnotes (remember, this is Boston; we love our history) it becomes even tastier.
For instance, Fitzpatrick would join elite company if he were to win this US Open. Only Jack Nicklaus (Pebble Beach in 1961 and 1972) and Juli Inkster (Prairie Dunes in 1980 and 2002) have won national championships on the same course as an amateur and professional.
And then there’s the little nugget contributed by the grossly overlooked Lawson Little. He won a US Amateur in 1934 at The Country Club and six years later won a US Open.
Fitzpatrick’s meter since the ‘13 US Amateur is nine years, but who could possibly care that it’s still running? The cost of watching him mature and grow into a world force is worth the price tag.
Fitzpatrick can’t walk in from the Fultons’ home, certainly not as casually did Francis Ouimet in 1913. But he can drive it out robustly, and sometimes even past a force like Dustin Johnson.