One-on-one: Fitzpatrick continues education at Masters

World No 1 Amateur golfer Matt Fitzpatrick at Hallamshire Golf Club
World No 1 Amateur golfer Matt Fitzpatrick at Hallamshire Golf Club
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After all that has happened to him in the last few months – from Open and US Amateur glory to scepticism for quitting college – Matt Fitzpatrick has had to learn quickly that the highs and lows should all be greeted with a large dose of perspective.

That starts on the golf course for the rising star of the English game.

“If I have a bad round it’s not the end of the world,” he says of a mindset that is becoming his mantra. “It won’t be the last bad round I play, and similarly, if I have a great round, I’m trying not to get too carried away.

“There will be other great rounds but it doesn’t mean I’m going to be hitting those heights every round.

“I’m trying to be as a relaxed as I possibly can be. One thing I’ve learned from the past year is to put things into more perspective.”

Such have been the life-changing events in such a short space of time, it is sometimes worth remembering that the Hallamshire Golf Club member is only 19.

Even he has to remind himself of that every now and again, especially when the scrutiny over his decision to abandon his studies in America and still remain an amateur is at its height.

All that attention stems from his golden summer of 2013, when the Sheffield teenager won the silver medal winner for leading amateur at the Open at Muirfield in July, became the first Englishman to win the US Amateur title in more than a century in August and then played in the Walker Cup.

It all happened so fast he had no time to sit back, relax and enjoy his moment.

Instead, he had to honour an obligation to take up a four-year golf scholarship at Northwestern University in Illinois in early September, one he had committed to when still a budding amateur, and not the most talked-about apprentice in world golf.

Had he had time to reflect, he might have been able to put university off for a year while he reaped the rewards of his US Amateur title – three visits to the majors this summer, starting with the Masters at Augusta next week.

Instead, he stuck by his promise and gave the much-vaunted American Collegiate system a shot.

It was brave to think that after sitting his A levels at Tapton School in Sheffield, then conquering Muirfield and Brookline in less than three months, he could go back to burying his head in the books.

So there was a mixed reaction to the decision he made in the new year that the return to school, on top of continuing his golf education under a new coach in a new country, was, in fact, one life lesson too far.

Pat Goss, Northwestern’s head coach and tutor of former world No 1 Luke Donald, expressed his surprise at Fitzpatrick’s decision to quit and there was the occasional sceptical headline.

But, by and large, the support he received from his peers – and most importantly his family – was vital.

“With the difficulties I was having and the list of amazing stuff I’d got coming up this year – which is an opportunity of a lifetime – it felt like the right decision,” he says, three months on and back at home in Sheffield.

“And I don’t regret it at all.

“I spoke to Pat Goss, which as you can imagine, wasn’t an easy conversation. But he understood the reasons. I’d have loved to have stayed but it just wasn’t right.”

It was understandable that Fitzpatrick wanted to put the brakes on a life that was speeding of control. But has it worked?

“It hasn’t calmed down that much. I’ve been playing a lot more golf but there’s been things I’ve had to learn,” he says.

“What it has enabled me to concentrate on, though, is the golf. I’m working five to six hours a day whereas in the autumn at college I was managing four hours a day.

“Then, in the final weeks at Northwestern, I was barely practicing at all because I was catching up on schoolwork.”

Now that he has afforded himself extra time with a club in his hands – back under the wing of long-time coach Mike Walker – he acknowledges that he has created expectation on his shoulders to repeat what he managed last year.

“I’ve created more pressure because I’ve placed all my eggs into one basket,” he says of quitting college. “Just because you can work on your game and put in the hours, it doesn’t mean it’s going to naturally click and you’re going to become a better player. There’s no guarantee that just because you’re practising more, you’ll automatically no longer struggle.”

His decision to postpone his education has also increased the clamour to turn professional. Since returning home, his parents have had to field a number of calls from agents trying to entice their son into the paid ranks.

ISM and IMG, the two powerhouse management companies on either side of the Atlantic, head the queue.

But after a whirlwind nine months that began on the eve of Open qualifying with a defeat in a monthly medal to his dad Russell that left him questioning his future in the game, Fitzpatrick is in no hurry to put his future in someone else’s hands.

With the US Open and Open as well as the Masters on the horizon this summer, and the US Amateur to defend in August, he wants to reap the fruits of his labour before this glorious adventure has to become a living.

“I’ve not thought too much about turning pro,” he admits. “I’m just going to see how this year goes and take it from there.

“I may even stay on another year as an amateur. But if I’m ready to turn professional then I will do.

“There’s a big incentive to stay amateur definitely for this year and I intend to do that at least.

“I’ve got enough invites into professional tour events this year (he plays the MCI Heritage the week after Augusta after missing the cut at the Bay Hill Invitational last week) that I’m going to take up and if I can get the balance right of amateur events and invites into pro events, then I might carry on like that.

“There’s plenty of fantastic opportunities for me out there.”

The first of those, and arguably the best, is at Augusta National next week for golf’s most iconic tournament.

Amen Corner, Magnolia Drive, the azaleas, the lush fairways and the most exclusive field in all of golf await the greenhorn who last summer was playing for Yorkshire in the Northern Counties.

“To play in the Masters is the aim of any professional golfer, so to achieve it as an amateur is unthinkable,” says Fitzpatrick.

“I’d love to be able to get back there as a professional because you know you’ve earned it as a member of the world’s top 50 and it means you’re doing all right.

“So to be playing it this year as an amateur is unreal, and I don’t think I’ve got my head round it yet.”