'No other tournament can match it'
Matthew Southgate knows how to win the toughest of battles. In 2015, while plying his trade on the Challenge Tour, the Essex-born 29-year-old was diagnosed with testicular cancer and forced to take several months out of the game.
He came back after surgery and qualified for the European Tour. And while he is yet to win on the professional circuit, Southgate is just happy to be playing – “it opened my eyes to how much I really want this” – and it is at the Open Championship where he feels most at home thanks to a tie for 12th at Troon in 2016 and a tie for 6th at Birkdale last time out.
So surely the next finish in that sequence is 1st? “It obviously doesn’t work like that,” he says with a chuckle. “But that’s the dream.
“People talk about trends in past results in golf, but I don’t see it like that. It would just be nice to keep that pattern going and get into contention.”
Southgate’s 4-under at Birkdale 12 months ago made him just the 18th English player to finish in the top 10 since Nick Faldo was the last to lift the Claret Jug in 1992.
“That is a surprise, isn’t it?” he says. “Especially when you’ve got English players who have won the other majors. Lee Westwood was World No. 1 and has had great opportunities at The Open. The way Luke Donald putts on links greens, I thought he might have had a bit more of a run at it.
“I am one of the better links players out of the English lot – but I wouldn’t put me top of the list for the next English winner. Tommy Fleetwood has got big future in majors because it’s all about keeping your nerve, which he does when it comes to Sunday. If Fleetwood had a lead I don’t think he’d buckle and he’s not afraid to take shots on.
“That’s the most important factor. If it’s windy on Sunday you’ve got to keep hitting those shots with a bit of finesse – you can’t just take dead aim and whack it, you really need to control your flight. Fleetwood does that really well.
“To be the highest-placed Englishman at Birkdale was an incredibly proud achievement. And walking up 18 knowing that last putt was to do it was such a cool feeling.
“Those moments are more sentimental than the prize money. It’s the kind of thing you can tell your grandchildren one day – something no one can take away from you.
“It’s a really nice thing to have on the CV.”
This year, golf’s oldest major moves on to Carnoustie, a course at which Southgate has taken up membership.
“It could make it 10 shots better or 10 shots harder, so I’ve got to get my head around that a bit. I’ve had a few good games at Carnoustie and, more importantly, I know the greens and where not to miss – but links golf is all about playing the conditions. I fancy my chances in terms of course knowledge, as I probably know the course better than anyone in the field.
“But it’s about embracing the opportunity and giving the home fans something to cheer about instead of watching them disappear because you’ve got off to an awful start.
“You can’t start thinking about winning The Open until you’ve at least set up the chance to win it, and I’m at that stage of my career now. We all start level par on the first tee and if you’ve got a chance coming the back nine on Sunday you take a few deep breathes and roll the dice.
“Where the Open is held makes a big difference to certain individuals. For me, being a member at Carnoustie makes a difference; being an Englishman in an Open held in England makes a difference; playing at St Andrews – the Home of Golf – makes a difference.
“Look at the reception a British player would get walking up 18 at The Open compared to an event in America – you can’t match that at any other tournament.
“It’s just got a prestige to it and that special atmosphere you don’t find anywhere else. As a fan, when you walk through the front gate at The Open you just know you’re about to witness something special.”
It was being part of that atmosphere as a young golf fan that made Southgate dream of one day getting to The Open as a player.
“The Open was the only tournament I got taken to as a kid. My dad and I would go camping and watch all the practice days. It was brilliant.
“We went in 1999 when Paul Lawrie won. As soon as he holed that winning putt that was when I realised all I wanted to do was walking down the 18th on a Sunday at The Open.
“To wind the clock forward and to actually be doing that is incredible. It’s the tournament I want to perform in more than any other.”
As a member of Thorpe Hall in Southend, Southgate didn’t get to play a lot of links golf as a youngster – but learning to play in that part of the world has certainly helped hone his skills in the seaside version of the game.
“My golf course is right in the bay so we get a lot of windy days. You have to hit plenty of draws and fades, high shots and low shots.
“My dad and I would go out and experiment. We’d mess about hitting from trees, or playing 18 holes with just one club and a putter.
“It got a bit boring just hitting straight shots to the middle of the fairway then onto the middle of the green, so it was really good fun to experiment taking the game to the extreme.
“So while I haven’t played a lot of links courses, I have been playing links golf since I was young. Those more skilful shots needed to succeed at The Open are just embedded in me.”
With a top-10 finish at Birkdale in the bag and a membership at Carnoustie taken up, which is Southgate’s favourite? As you’d expect, he’s happy sitting on the fence.
“Birkdale is an incredible course, while Carnoustie is a very fair test. There is no bluffing it around Carnoustie.
“Away from the Open rota, I really enjoy playing at Royal Cinque Ports. At some links courses you are helped by the wind, but whichever way the wind blows at Cinque Ports it’s still a test because of the way the course was built.”
Indeed, it was at Cinque Ports where Southgate qualified for his first Open as a professional. With qualifying becoming increasingly focussed on tour players to ensure a world class field, Southgate believes it would be a mistake to take the opportunity away from the club players.
“Open Qualifying is a special event that gives people something to dream about – and some get to actually live it. You get some amateurs who go on to make the cut, and one goes on to win the Silver Medal.
“But all of them get to walk away with a player’s badge – something they get to keep forever.
“It would be a real shame if it was to shut shop and a loss to the tournament to have a club pro chucking in his entry fee and giving it a rip through qualifying and getting into the Open.
“Paul Lawrie had to qualify for The Open in 1999 and went on to win it. Michael Campbell had to qualify for the US Open in 2005 and went on to win it.
“If you take away qualifying, you lose the Paul Lawrie story, you lose the Michael Campbell story, and that would have a negative effect on the game of golf as a whole.”
You also lose the Matthew Southgate story.