Matt Fitzpatrick was 22-years-old when he made his Ryder Cup debut. He was never one to sport the look of a man-mountain, the way a bearded, broad-shouldered John Rahm might be able to stare down an opponent and win the first couple of holes before a ball had even been struck.
But where Fitzpatrick was an equal was with golf club in hand; either his unerring accuracy from tee to green or his nerveless holing of putts.
American audiences had seen it only three years prior in how he won the US Amateur, and earlier that year when he charged into the top 10 at Augusta.
European crowds were familiar with it, as he won twice in the qualifying race that year to book his place in Darren Clarke’s European team.
But it was a difficult Ryder Cup baptism for Fitzpatrick.
“It was a tough one, disappointing to lose, I didn’t really play my best that week,” he reflects.
“I would have loved to have played more but I understand why I didn’t, I was a rookie, you’re not guaranteed playing time at all.
“There were a lot of nerves back then. I wasn’t too nervous over the first tee shot, it was just more the fact I was playing Zach Johnson on the Sunday and it was a case of ‘wow, I’m playing against Zach Johnson’.”
Fitzpatrick returns to the cauldron atmosphere of the Ryder Cup with a lot stronger mentality, one honed by spending the past few years playing primarily on the PGA Tour against the players he will be lining up against this week. “I’ll be a lot better prepared mentally for having done it before. This time I’m going with a different mindset, I feel like my game is different,” Fitzpatrick tells The Yorkshire Post.
“It’s more exciting for me now, I’m looking forward to it more than I did in 2016.
“Now it’ll be okay that I’m playing against Zach Johnson or whoever, because I think I can beat that person. That’s the big difference for me.
“A lot of it stems from competing on the PGA Tour, I’ve been doing it for a few years now whereas in 2016 I’d only been competing with these guys for a few months.”
Fitzpatrick’s hardening in America began before the pandemic. He relocated to Florida to give him more time to work on his game.
“The weather in Florida is only slightly better than Sheffield,” he laughs, having spent a few days back in his native South Yorkshire.
“I wake up in Florida and every day I know what I’m getting. The facilities I practise at are second to none, there’s nowhere I’ve been that’s better than the Bear’s Club, and that comes from Jack Nicklaus, he’s done it with the players and members in mind.
“To me it’s a no-brainer to improve my game there, an endless range, short-game area, par-three course; that freedom to practise anything I want, no limits. I love the way of life out there as well, it’s dead easy. I get up in the morning, go to the golf course to practise, eat up there, practise some more, come home, into the gym. It’s a perfect way of life for what I need right now at 27.”
What he needs this week is a Ryder Cup victory.
“To win on US soil would be right up there for me,” says Fitzpatrick, who lost both his matches five years ago. “It’s something that stays with you your whole career, it’s that special.
“I’ll be hoping to have much more of a bearing this time, that’s the plan.
“On paper, the United States have got the strongest team they’ve ever had.
“The thing is, there’s a lot of talk about rookies, I think sometimes guys are such good players in their own right, that are they really rookies? Xander Shauffele is a rookie but he’s top five in the world.
“It was different when I was on the team, I was mid-30s, early 40s, so it’s a big difference. And a lot younger.
“I’m hoping many people have written us off already with the strength of the US team, it’s a good thing to go in as underdogs.”
A good week at Whistling Straits would strengthen his belief that he has the game to win on the PGA Tour.
He had five top-10 finishes in a row around the Masters back in the spring but has yet to get over the line.
“The strength in depth of the field is much stronger, that’s what makes it so hard,” he says. “I feel like I’ve played well and then someone from 30th place has shot eight-under. I’ve just got to keep giving myself chances.”
In the constant effort to improve, Fitzpatrick absorbs himself in stats, trying to find marginal gains that will increase his chances of adding to his six European Tour wins.
Eight years have passed since his historic win at the US Amateur. A second Ryder Cup appearance since suggests the career trajectory remains on track, but Fitzpatrick comes across as unfulfilled, restless almost.
“What was my potential?” he asks rhetorically. “I have people tweeting me all the time saying you’re going to win a major this year or next year.
“As much as I love the support, I’ve got to be realistic, for me in the majors I’ve not really competed yet. I’ve had one top-10 finish where I’ve had a good last round and come from the middle of the pack.
“Until I start competing regularly in majors then it’s going to be tough for me.
“That’s where I want to get to. I did it in the amateur game to get to world No 1, won the US amateur, and they’re big deals.
“But, until I start competing in the majors and really give myself a chance it will be tough to take. I’ve just got to keep working at it and hopefully fulfil this potential that everyone seems to think I’ve got.”