Before I ever spoke to Matt Fitzpatrick, I met his mother and grandparents at Hallamshire, the Sheffield course where he learned to play.
Susan was out walking her dog and had come to the club to check up on her parents, who were helping at a charity golf day.
I asked how her son was, and she replied that the week before was his 21st birthday, so he was away in America, celebrating with friends.
It struck me as odd that a young man would choose to spend such an important birthday away from home, but then that’s the life Fitzpatrick, a former US Amateur champion, has chosen now he has joined the professional ranks.
It’s a year since Fitzpatrick graduated from Q School onto the European Tour, and when I spoke to him I wondered how much his life had changed in such a short period of time – for one, his win at the British Masters brought him into the ranks of young millionaire athletes.
But first that 21st birthday. How did it compare with that of a year before?
“It was a lot different, a lot better,” he said. “This year I was in Chicago, where I went to college. I’ve got a lot of mates over there so I took them all out for dinner. We had a really great time and I was able to get the bill. A lot of my friends are at college, but I’m earning money so I feel like I can pay.”
By “earning money”, Fitzpatrick is referring to the €1,350,000 he’s picked up in a year on the European Tour.
“I couldn’t tell you all of the advice I have received from a lot of people, but I guess the main thing this year is that I have just learned to enjoy it.” And what about life in general? A full-time European Tour schedule has seen him participate in 27 events this season, so what advice would he give to any rookie coming on to the Tour this year?
“There has been tons of changes,” he said. “Everything has got so busy, flying all over the place, taking a plane every week. I’m lucky in that I was always travelling when I was younger so I am used to it. But I would tell them to enjoy it. Get as many invites as you can, try and build up your professional status and take it all in. It’s an amazing experience.
“For me, the biggest challenge has been playing well. I always want to play well. The point is that I don’t feel I have made it yet, and there are very few golfers who can say they have. I’m doing OK but I have got a lot of room for improvement.”
Looking at Fitzpatrick, and first impressions aren’t of your typical superstar athlete. He’s 5ft 9in tall and he weighs just over 10 stone.
That puts him four inches shorter and three stone lighter than fellow Under Armour athlete Jordan Spieth, who’s a little over a year older than he is.
The clothing he wears gives the impression of a player who’s got his gear in anticipation of a growth spurt.
He’s not explosive, like Rory. He’s more reserved and controlled, like Luke Donald, who attended Northwestern, the same college as Fitzpatrick.
But that Under Armour contract and the lengthy pursuit by and subsequent signing to Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable suggests there’s something quite special about the Sheffield United supporter.
Could that be because he was the first English winner of the US Amateur in 102 years? Or the fact he was once the top ranked amateur in the world?
It’s a faith he has backed up this year. He’s one of the most accurate players on Tour, hitting more than 70 per cent of fairways and 75 per cent of greens. He was a whisker away from shooting a 59 at the KLM Open, and then he got a late invite to Woburn in October.
Coming into the returning British Masters, no player on the European Tour had more top three finishes. Despite being the youngest player in the field, he went wire-to-wire to claim his maiden victory in front of 57,047 fans, including his family.
Prior to the weekend, Fitzpatrick had told me he wasn’t obsessing over that first victory, rather the main goal was to accumulate world rankings points and get an invite back to the Masters.
Speaking afterwards, he said: “I think it’s something I’ve sort of realized is if you’re in the top 50 it just opens up so many doors to events, and the money is bigger, ranking is easier to keep, your card is easier to keep. I think my dad used the word ’self-perpetuating’. Once you are sort of are up there, you can play all these events and the money is bigger and the points are better.”
It’s a victory that took the former England Golf international to the top of the Ryder Cup qualification table and if he is able to maintain that level of performance, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t find himself in the qualification spots when September comes.
Not a bad year for a young man whose aim for the season was to retain his European Tour card.
“The way I saw it, it depended on whether I played well or not would decide if it changed my life, or whether I would be back on the Challenge Tour the year after,” he explained. “I had a good idea of what would happen as I already had experience of playing at good tournaments.
“But there’s quite a big difference between the Challenge Tour, compared to the European Tour. It’s a massive difference in fact, in terms of how the courses are set up and how you are treated at the tournaments in general. The courses are always in pristine condition and they are the best courses in the world, but that’s how it’s supposed to be isn’t it? Everything is supposed to be better.”
Less than two years ago Fitzpatrick stunned his college professor by quitting Northwestern after just one semester, initially stating that he wanted to remain an amateur until at least this year’s Walker Cup.
He abandoned the educational side of things in order to focus 100 per cent upon his golf. That US Amateur victory led to invites to the Masters and US Open and had served only to feed his hunger for the paid ranks.
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“Turning pro was quite a big risk, but then I thought I could always go back to university if it didn’t work out,” he said. “So I have always got that behind me, but it’s always going to be a bit of a risk because you never quite know what’s going to happen.”
His only previous paid job was babysitting for his brother, which earned him £20 an hour. He didn’t even have a bank account until two weeks before he turned professional. Yet this year he’s earned €1,350,000, including the €671,550 top prize at Woburn.
So what’s it like being so young and having such wealth thrust upon you?
Like one who’s tired of seeing his career being reduced to simple brass tacks, Fitzpatrick is downbeat about the money, and said: “It’s very nice. It’s one of those things – I’m playing golf and that’s what matters. I’m being sensible with the money. My Dad is a bank manager, which I guess helps, and I spend it when I want. I don’t feel a need to go out and spend it all, and so I’m saving for a few big things, like a house.”
One thing the healthy bank balance does allow him to do, however, is to repay his father, Russell, and mother, Susan, who sacrificed so much to enable his career to flourish.
“I have no doubt that I owe my parents a huge debt, so I’m not sure exactly what the plan is, but I’m going to take them on holiday before the end of the year,” he said. “It’s amazing that now I can afford to do that and pay them back, just because I can play golf. It’s very surreal.”