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‘Work ethic like no other,’ not fate, lands Matthew Fitzpatrick U.S. Open title

BROOKLINE, Mass. – It was 12:30 a.m., and the Fitzpatricks were on the verge of another national championship.

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Just like at the 2013 U.S. Amateur, the Fitzpatrick family was crashing with Will Fulton, a Boston-area resident and The Country Club’s chairman for this year’s U.S. Open. On Saturday night the mood was light, the red wine flowing, and the conversation naturally shifted to the final round, set to begin in 14 hours.

“Matt is going to win it tomorrow,” Fulton said. “It’s fate.”

Fate?

Sorry, but Matt Fitzpatrick, perhaps the most methodical and disciplined golfer on the planet, wasn’t leaving this one up to the golf gods or some outside force. This is a player who since age 15 has kept a spreadsheet of every golf shot he’s ever hit. Who plays Trackman games to perfect his practice. Who will do just about anything – gain 20 pounds, chip cross-handed, putt with the flagstick in – if it means giving him even the tiniest edge over his peers.

“I’ve called him Bernhard Langer’s love child,” said Fitzpatrick’s caddie, 40-year veteran Billy Foster. “I’ve worked with some great players, but he’s by far the most professional player I’ve ever worked for. And he got it today.”

All the hours of solitary practice, all the hard-earned gains, all the sacrifices large and small – they paid off in a statement-making performance Sunday at The Country Club, where Fitzpatrick used his newfound length and hit 17 greens in a clinical Open dissection. The Englishman joined Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win the U.S. Amateur and Open at the same venue.

“The feeling is out of this world,” he said afterward.

His father, Russell, experienced a different sensation.

“It’s very déjà vu, really,” he said.

Indeed, once the celebration around the 18th green subsided, Russell soon realized that he had been standing in that exact spot nine years earlier, when his family’s course changed forever.

At Brookline in 2013, Matt Fitzpatrick was the top-ranked player in the world and coming off a low-amateur medal just a few weeks earlier at Muirfield. After Matt dusted the field at the Amateur with his then-13-year-old brother Alex on the bag, his family insisted that the rising star would honor his scholarship at Northwestern and spend all four years there.

“This might be as good as it ever gets,” Russell said that day. “You just never know. Professional sport is really, really tough. I’ve seen players turn pro, and we never hear from them again.”

BY Mercer Baggs

— June 19, 2022 at 6:55 PM

​Matthew Fitzpatrick won his first major title and repeated history on Sunday at the 122nd U.S. Open.

Fitzpatrick lasted neither four years nor four months in Evanston, Illinois, but despite his father’s concerns, he was heard from plenty. Playing primarily in Europe, he won five times in his first few years on the DP World Tour and was known mostly as a short, scrawny, scrappy scrambler with a tidy short game; decked out in Under Armour garb, he appeared a less physically imposing and gifted version of Jordan Spieth.

READ ALSO:  Matt Fitzpatrick wins for first career major championship

In the fall of 2020, however, Fitzpatrick sensed the need for change and embarked on an ambitious transformation. Bryson DeChambeau had just authored what appeared to be a game-changing victory at the U.S. Open, where he wailed away on driver and romped to a six-shot win at golf’s toughest test. After seeing that macho display at Winged Foot, one of the game’s most feared venues, Fitzpatrick was annoyed and called on the governing bodies to crack down on distance gains. He argued that DeChambeau’s bomb-and-gouge style was “making a mockery of the game,” and that he, too, could gain 40 pounds and 40 yards, if he wanted, but that the real skill was being able to rip it straight.

“I don’t necessarily think people will try and copy him, putting all that weight on,” he said then, “but I think you’ll see people going harder at it.”

One of those people became Fitzpatrick himself.

That winter, he huddled with longtime swing coach Mike Walker and biomechanist Sasho Mackenzie to add more pop. Employing a speed-training system called The Stack, Fitzpatrick religiously swung a physical swing-training stick to build a better sequence and swing faster while also using an app integrated with artificial intelligence that adjusted as he moved through his training sessions.

“I’ll be honest,” he said, “it has worked wonders.”

‘What a relief’: Foster finally tastes major win

'What a relief': Foster finally tastes major win

When he teed it up in early 2021 in Abu Dhabi, Fitzpatrick noticed immediate improvement. He shot 62 in a practice round and flicked wedges onto the green. Suddenly, he wasn’t just keeping pace – he was setting it.

“I was like, This is easy!” he said. “You just hit it miles, wedge it on and hole the putt.”

Fitzpatrick’s clubhead speed has increased more than 5 mph since 2019, and he’s gained more than a stroke and a half on the field per round with his driver compared to earlier in his career. This season he is the seventh-best driver on Tour; at the U.S. Open, he ranked third. When paired together in the first two rounds at Brookline, he often left Dustin Johnson in the dust.

“From when I started four years ago,” Foster said, “he’s a different animal completely. He’s a proper player now. I don’t know where it’s come from, but his work ethic is like no other.”

Fitzpatrick’s diligent practice sessions are the stuff of legend. His family said that Matt has charted every shot he’s ever hit since the age of 15, logging it all into a spreadsheet.

Foster has seen the notes:

8-iron: 4 yards right

9-iron: 2 yards left

And so on.

“It’s incredible the effort he puts in,” Foster said.

With a better understanding of his tendencies, each of Fitzpatrick’s practice days are scripted, oftentimes down to the ball count. At the practice area he’ll move around flags to dial in his accuracy and address his deficiencies. Then he’ll fire up his Trackman and play closest-to-the-pin contests with himself.

“If you saw the whole thing in person, you’d be amazed,” Alex said.

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His father went a step further: “If somebody spent a week with him, you’d think he’s crazy.”

Fitzpatrick’s quest for improvement knows no bounds. He started chipping cross-handed in 2020 because he found the strike, flight and spin more consistent. Even though most players abandoned the idea, he has been putting with the flagstick in since 2019. He wanted to fix his teeth, so he opted to get braces, at 27. He is sponsored by dad-brand Sketchers. In general, he said, “If it’s better and it works and it helps you win, you may as well do it. I’d rather win than worry about looking stupid.”

Combine all of those factors, and Fitzpatrick has enjoyed a breakout year in 2022, even without a victory. For a few months, the leader in the Tour’s strokes gained: total statistic (which measures a player against the field average) wasn’t Scottie Scheffler or Jon Rahm or Rory McIlroy. No, it was Fitzpatrick – no longer short and scrappy, but a stout stud, both 20 yards longer and 20 pounds heavier.

“There’s just a dedication to getting better each day,” Alex said. “The 1% every day gets him there and separates him from everyone else.”

And at this level, infinitesimal gains can lead to massive payoffs.

Finally equipped to challenge the game’s best, Fitzpatrick played his way into the final group at last month’s PGA Championship. A forgettable Sunday 73 dropped him down the board, and for two hours flying home he stewed at the back of the plane. Foster kept trying to get his boss to focus on the bigger picture. “Billy has been saying for a while: The time will come. You’re playing so well,” Fitzpatrick said. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. It will come. It will happen.”

Fitzpatrick turned up at Brookline not just as a sentimental favorite, considering his 2013 Amateur ties, but as a legitimate threat to win. Three rounds of par or better at an increasingly cranky Country Club gave Fitzpatrick a share of the 54-hole lead with Will Zalatoris, who was coming off his own playoff disappointment at Southern Hills.

Full-field scores from U.S. Open

Nine years later, back at the Fultons’ house, the entire crew couldn’t shake the feeling Saturday night that this was Fitzpatrick’s time, even if it was mostly the red wine talking. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, grew anxious before his 2:45 p.m. start.

“There’s just a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “I just don’t think people realize how hard it is to win a major. There’s only four of them a year. And it just takes a little bit extra.”

Like one of the best ball-striking displays in Open history.

On a cool but calm New England afternoon, Fitzpatrick matched the long-hitting Zalatoris and became just the third player in the last 30 years to hit 17 greens in the final round of a major victory, joining Nick Faldo and Brooks Koepka.

Fitzpatrick’s most important iron shot was his last. All season he has struggled with his fairway-bunker play, and that’s where his final tee shot ended up on the 18th. Leading Zalatoris and Scheffler by a shot, needing precise contact with his ball slightly on the upslope in the bunker, Fitzpatrick chose 9-iron … and hoped.

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“It was just kind of natural ability that took over and I just played the shot that was at hand, as if I was a junior trying to hit it close,” he said.

Fitzpatrick’s crisp shot didn’t just clear the lip, but it skied over the cavernous greenside bunker and plopped 20 feet away for birdie.

“It’s one of the best shots I ever hit,” he said.

Said Zalatoris: “That golf shot was 1-in-20, at best. To pull it off in that situation is incredible.”

When Zalatoris’ tying birdie putt on a similar line slid by, Fitzpatrick cracked a big smile, flashing those braces. Behind the green, his family and friends erupted. McIlroy waited and then, seeing an opening, grabbed him by the shoulders: “All that work pays off. I’m so happy for you.”

At last a major winner after 40 years as a caddie, Foster kissed the flag. He has looped for some of Europe’s best players, from late-career Seve Ballesteros to Lee Westwood to Sergio Garcia. Along the way there have been a handful of major heartbreaks, none worse than the 2003 Open, when Thomas Bjorn kicked away a late lead in the St. George’s sand. Foster said that one tore him up so badly, he thought about it every day for six months.

“This has put a lot of bad memories to bed,” Foster said. “It means everything. I had a gorilla on my back, never mind a monkey.”

By now, darkness is starting to fall on the 18th green. Foster is nursing a Heineken, telling stories, reflecting on the day, fielding calls every few minutes.

One of his pals is patching in now.

“F—ing how good is that?” Foster asks. He puts his friend on speakerphone.

“That man is an absolute legend!” he says.

A minute later, another call, this time from a 407 area code.

“I’m a huge fan of you as a person, and I’m so happy for you, bro. Fitz basically didn’t miss a shot for four hours!”

Foster says that he appreciates the kind words, that he’ll see him in a few weeks in Scotland.

“Sean Foley …,” Foster says after hanging up. “How does he got my number!?”

More winner’s obligations remain, so the victory party is still a few hours away. They’ll probably have a toast in the Brookline clubhouse, more interviews, then retire to the Fultons’ house, just like in 2013.

“It’ll be a loooong night,” Russell says.

His son has two weeks off, but the celebration isn’t expected to linger. After all, there’s a strict diet to follow. And a weighted training stick to swing. And ordinary practice shots to chart.

The methods, moments and minutiae that won him a major.

“Oh, Matt will be there tonight,” Russell says, readjusting his new Boston Red Sox hat, “and he’ll party with us whether he likes it or not.”

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