All week, when asked what he knew about the long, distinguished history of golf at The Country Club, Matt Fitzpatrick gave the same answer: He remembered the 17th green, and the over-the-top US celebration there at the 1999 Ryder Cup.
Fitzpatrick has a new memory from No. 17 now, and since he’s from England, it’s so bloody better than that ugly image of all those loud, leaping Americans.
The reaction to the newest holed putt was much more subdued, but that’s just Fitzpatrick’s calm, quiet nature, unlike the other members of his family. His brother was on the green, wearing the caddie’s bib and shaking. His father was in the clubhouse, too nervous to even watch.
Fitzpatrick? He was in control, as he has been since the 113th US Amateur started on Monday. Now it’s the last day and Fitzpatrick is still here, having advanced to the final by beating Corey Conners on Saturday, 2 and 1.
The end came at the 17th, when Fitzpatrick holed a 20-footer for birdie. It sealed his semifinal victory and put the incoming Northwestern freshman in Sunday’s 36-hole final against Oliver Goss, who beat fellow Australian Brady Watt, 2 up.
But the win over Conners, a 21-year-old Canadian, gave Fitzpatrick the one thing he wanted most. By becoming a US Amateur finalist, he’ll be invited to play in next year’s Masters.
“Augusta is just sort of, as everyone says, golf heaven, I guess,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just virtually impossible to get a game there.”
Or tickets, as Fitzpatrick’s father, Russell, has discovered. The last four years he’s tried to get Masters tickets through the random ballot, and four times he’s been unsuccessful.
“Every year the e-mail comes: ‘Sorry, you’ve not got a ticket.’ So as long as they don’t change the invitation ruling, and health withstanding, I’ll definitely be going there,” Russell Fitzpatrick said. “I can’t tell you how much [I’m looking forward to it].”
The elder Fitzpatrick, more than anything else, has his son’s short game to thank for next spring’s date with the Augusta azaleas. Fitzpatrick doesn’t hit it as long as some of the other elite amateur players that were here — he answered a question about his height and weight by saying, “Short, and light” — but he supplements that with play around the greens that many PGA Tour players would pay handsomely for.
Take Saturday, for instance. In 17 holes against Conners, Fitzpaptrick hit just five greens in regulation. But he scrambled for par on eight of the 12 greens he missed, and did one better on No. 8. After going just over the green and into the deep rough, Fitzpatrick pulled off the shot of the match. He hit the shortest of flop shots, flying the ball less than 2 feet. It landed just on the green and then took the slope, dropping perfectly into the hole for a momentum-changing birdie. When Conners missed his birdie putt, Fitzpatrick had somehow won the hole, which squared the match.
“My short game was probably the best of my life today, I think,” said Fitzpatrick, who took only 20 putts in 17 holes. “Every chip and putt that I looked at was close.”
Fitzpatrick fell two holes down early, when he failed to save par from off the green on Nos. 3 and 4. That followed an unusual moment on the second green. While Conners was playing his second shot to the par 3, from a similar position behind the green where Fitzpatrick would also play his chip, Alex Fitzpatrick was frantically looking for the 58-degree wedge he knew his brother would want to use. But it was nowhere in the bag. It was then that Alex realized he had left the club near the first green.
“I told him, ‘Matt, I think I left the 58-degree on the green.’ He was like, ‘Alex, what are you doing? Quit playing around.’ Yeah, I was a bit scared,” said Alex, a 14-year-old who’s been on the bag the entire tournament. “Then he almost holed it. I’ve never seen him chip as good as this.”
Despite his parents and brother saying he doesn’t get angry — about anything — Fitzpatrick admitted he was heated about the temporary lost club.
“No doubt about it, I was angry. Maybe said something that I probably shouldn’t to him,” Fitzpatrick said. “But it’s all right. By the next hole we were absolutely fine.”
The first green Fitzpatrick hit came at No. 6, and he promptly rolled in the 30-foot birdie putt to reduce Conners’s lead to one. He tied the match with the chip-in at the eighth, and took the lead with a conceded birdie putt on No. 10. Another birdie, this one a 3-footer he rolled in on No. 13, gave Fitzpatrick a 2-up lead.
Conners had two great chances to cut into the deficit. The first came at No. 14, when he missed a 10-footer for par after Fitzpatrick had already made a bogey. The next was at the 16th, when he rolled in a 3-footer for birdie to win the hole and climb within one.
But Conners found the Vardon Bunker at the corner of the dogleg at No. 17, and watched helplessly as Fitzpatrick knocked in the birdie putt that ended the match. The way his opponent was rolling it, Conners expected nothing less.
“Matt was pretty tough to beat. When your opponent is in a difficult spot and pulls off a great shot, it kind of deflates the tires a little bit,” Conners said. “Very proud of the way I played, definitely. It’s quite an accomplishment to make it this far. Obviously a little disappointed, but still really happy with my performance.”
Fitzpatrick has been, too, but he’s got one more day. He’s already earned trips to next year’s Masters and US Open. Now he’s after the Havemeyer Trophy, looking to become only the second US Amateur champion from England, joining Harold Hilton in 1911.
“Very happy, as you can probably imagine. I’m very pleased with the achievement,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a nice position to be in. But it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t come off tomorrow. There are worse things, so I’m just giving it my best.”