Russell Fitzpatrick spent his working life dispensing advice as a bank manager but on this occasion in 2013 he was the one seeking counsel. ‘Tell me your honest opinion,’ he asked me, his eyes pleading with a parent’s love. ‘Do you think my son Matt is good enough to make it?’
Anyone who spends their time around the professional game knows it’s an impossible question to answer. Golf is so hard and so cruel at times, as good people are chewed up and spat out all the time. Very few come from wealthy backgrounds.
So when their offspring do make it, you think: thank the Lord for that. When they become rich and famous without losing their heads, you say to yourself: good on them.
The joy was unconfined as Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick won the US Open on Sunday
Matt celebrated with father Russell (left), brother Alex (second left) and mother Sue (right)
When they reach the mountain top and win the US Open, as Matt did on Sunday, well no wonder the joy was unconfined, and not only on the 18th green for the close-knit family of four. Fitzpatrick’s victory on Sunday was, quite simply, as good as golf gets.
Who better than Jack Nicklaus to sum it up? The Golden Bear doesn’t watch much golf these days but he sat riveted like the rest of us as the Englishman delivered the shot of a lifetime at the end of perhaps the greatest round that a British golfer has ever played — at least tee to green.
‘That was one of the most exciting final rounds I have ever seen and Matt’s shot on the 18th was one of the greatest iron shots under pressure that I’ve ever seen,’ opined the greatest golfer of all.
You could see what it meant to Fitzpatrick as he took the call from the 18-time major champion, the only other to win the US Open and the US Amateur at the same venue (Jack did it at Pebble Beach).
Jack Nicklaus sat riveted like the rest of us as the Englishman delivered the shot of a lifetime
‘Honestly, getting a call from him means the world,’ said Fitzpatrick, just the third Englishman to win the US Open since 1924, following Tony Jacklin in 1970 and Justin Rose in 2013. ‘Any time your name is ranked with him is confirmation of what you’re trying to achieve.’
The late Peter Alliss always said that Sir Nick Faldo’s final-round 67 at the Masters in 1996, when he hunted down Greg Norman, was the best he witnessed. In years to come, Fitzpatrick’s will surely be ranked alongside it.
Only three golfers in the last 30 years have hit 17 greens in regulation in the final round to win a major: Faldo in 1996, Brooks Koepka at the US Open in 2017, and now Fitzpatrick.
What made the latter’s achievement stand out even in this elite company was the venue. The greens at the original Country Club are really small, traditional targets, and particularly hard to hit if you’re not standing in the middle of the fairway.
He said Fitzpatrick’s shot on the 18th was one of the greatest iron shots under pressure ever
Compounding the difficulty was the fact Fitzpatrick was placed under immense pressure from his opening tee shot, and by a charging world No 1 in Scottie Scheffler at that, plus the brilliant, engaging young American Will Zalatoris, his playing partner in the final group.
Yet Fitzpatrick flat outplayed both of them. Time and again he didn’t even bother watching where his tee shot ended up, for he knew it was laser-straight. Only at the 10th did an iron shot falter badly enough to miss the mark. It was an incredible exhibition to behold.
Of course, if you’re hitting that many greens you’re going to take a good number of putts but Fitzpatrick took 35, a bonkers number for someone who putts as well as he does. In other words, the club that is usually the strongest in his bag was his weakest on this occasion. How encouraging is that for British golf going forward?
It comes just 21 months after he left the US Open in a state of complete despair. He thought he had played well at Winged Foot but he couldn’t compete with the bomb and gouge technique of the runaway winner, Bryson DeChambeau. ‘He’s making a mockery of the game,’ bemoaned Fitzpatrick.
Now look at them. DeChambeau looks a one-major wonder. Fitzpatrick is setting new targets already. ‘I couldn’t be more thrilled to win my first major, it’s a cliche I know but it really is everything you dream of as a kid,’ he said. ‘But six majors is the ultimate goal.’
Time and again Fitzpatrick didn’t even bother watching where his tee shot ended up
Six is the number, of course, that Faldo won, beginning his spree at the age of 30 following a brave decision to employ David Leadbetter as coach that turned him from a proven European Tour winner into a major champion.
Fitzpatrick has a three-year head start following a similarly gutsy decision to seek more distance from the tee, and a move that has paid off spectacularly. Everything we know about him tells us this is just the start.
But what a start. Nine years on from his victory in the US Amateur Championship at Brookline, he was staying with the same family in the same house owned by Will and Jennifer Fulton, together with their three children.
‘We even stayed in the same bedrooms,’ said Sue, Fitzpatrick’s mum. Like the Fultons, she is a big believer in fate.
Fitzpatrick has set himself the target of winning six majors, the same as Sir Nick Faldo (right)
‘Everyone in the household was telling Matt it was his time. But no golfer can possibly rely on fate. Fitzpatrick didn’t leading up to his 2.45pm tee time.
‘There’s just such a lot of stuff going on,’ he said afterwards. ‘It’s just so hard to win a major when there’s only four of them. One minute you’re thinking you’ve got hours to kill and the next it’s right there on top of you and you have to play well. It just takes that little bit extra.’
After he’d delivered that little bit extra, he embraced his mum and dad and younger brother Alex, who has just turned professional himself. He hugged Billy Foster, his caddie who was in bits after finally winning his own first major after 40 years of trying.
Standing on the mountain top, Russell couldn’t help but think about the long journey. ‘Even when he won the US Amateur here there were still no guarantees that he would make it,’ he said.
‘We see it all the time in professional golf.’
The win came nine years on from his victory in the US Amateur Championship at Brookline
Not on this blessed day. Not for the pint-sized kid who has become perhaps the unlikeliest British golf hero of all, and for whom this might prove just the start.
Stories abound about Fitzpatrick’s dedication. ‘If you spent a week with him, you’d think he was crazy,’ said his dad. Matt has held parties in his own house in Florida where he’s been the first to go bed, because he had to practise the following day.
As he finally made his way from the 18th green, with a police escort and the fans who had stayed behind constantly chanting his name — ‘Fitzy! Fitzy! — Russell Fitzpatrick let out a huge sigh.
They were ready to return to the Fultons, and for the celebrations to begin. ‘We’ll make sure Matt parties tonight, whether he likes it or not,’ he said.