Matt Fitzpatrick US Open: He may be a champion but he's still 'our mate Fitz'

The messages were, and at the time of writing still are, flooding in. And that’s just to my phone. Can you imagine winning the US Open? Can you imagine playing the golf of your life to win a major championship?

By James Gregg
Monday, 20th June 2022, 5:27 pm

We sit and watch on TV from afar. Wondering how super human you have to be to even hold the club in those situations, willing the ball one way or another. Trying to shoo the ball with your hand against a TV screen. Looking at the huge galleries framing the tightly mown fairways and long theskew grass and thinking to ourselves ‘how on earth do you do even play and do that?’

Matt Fitzpatrick, US Open Champion, major winner.

But, as cliche as this is, to me and our tight circle of mates he’s just Matt. Or Fitz. Or Trike. Or Fiddy P. Or all of them if the WhatsApp group is popping off when he wakes up in Florida and it’s lunchtime where us lot are in the UK.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

James Gregg and new US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick in their younger days

There’s stories behind those nicknames by the way, but that’s for another time.

I don’t really know where else to start, other than chronologically. That seems best, and also seems like the meticulous and organised thing that Matt would do if he was writing about himself. Which he absolutely wouldn’t, by the way. You read ‘down to earth’ and ‘normal’ and ‘humble’ and ‘true to his roots’ about a lot of sportspeople, and why not? It’s a nice thing to write about somebody. But I cannot stress enough how normal Fitz is and if you made me hazard a guess, always will be.

At 12 years old, Fitz had just got back from a family holiday and came straight to Hallamshire GC where we were both members to play in a junior comp. I hung back and waited for him so we could play in a 2 at the back of the field. Our own final group of a major. Apart from… his clubs had been lost at the airport. So he borrowed the assistant professional’s clubs (which were adult stuff shafts), and knowing that if he swung normally with them they would start right of where he would usually hit it.

James Gregg with Alex and Matt Fitzpatrick

He shot a nett 68 (off around 10 handicap) and won the comp. We had such a laugh, and we instantly became mates. Later that summer our club junior team got to the English Junior Team finals held at Woburn (more on that hallowed turf in Bedfordshire shortly), and our team was led by Ted (his now manager) who was a bit older than us and off 3 handicap. Matt was just turned 13 and playing off 6, and shot level par and got us through to the Home Nations Finals held in La Manga. Matt won the individual prize that day and we were all in awe of him.

Awe. It’s weird to be such close mates with someone for 15 years and be in awe with them frequently, but that’s something that we deal with, right? Being in awe of Matt for the next few years of junior golf became a recurring theme.

There was the time I beat him to the Sheffield under 14 title. He played awful and I played the best I could have. I mentioned him in my speech after (I cannot remember what, it can’t have been that statesmanlike at 13 years old), so duly 2 weeks later in the driving rain and wind he went and won the Sheffield under 18’s by 3 shots. At 13 years old.

He said ‘I’m gonna mention my mate Greggy because he mentioned me in his the other week’ in his speech.

We would travel to junior competitions, with either my mum and dad or his mum and dad, and quite often both. I’ve always maintained that Russ and Sue are the best ‘golf parents’ ever to walk the earth. Not pushy yet encouraging, proud but not at all braggy. Pick them up when they’re down and knock them down a peg or two when they’re up. That’s why they’ve got not just Matt as a major winner but brother Alex too, who was one of the best amateurs in the world until he turned pro a little over a fortnight ago.

Matt was shooting in the 60’s regularly at 14 or 15… which looking back on it is pretty ridiculous. But he’d go up for lessons with Graham Walker in York the odd weekend… and then be found hitting balls all week after school on the practice ground. A few of us of a similar age would want to be hanging round chatting to girls or trying to act ‘cool’ after school. He’d love to go and play 9 holes with his mum and dad on a summers’ evening.

No wonder then, when we used to share a hotel room at a junior event and play ‘lowest score on the day gets the big double bed’ I’d find myself pressed up against the wall in the single.

Matt’s funny, like, really really really funny. Our humour is very niche and quite golf-centric but I think some of the best laughs I’ve had in my life have been with ‘team Fitz’, his family and our pals, stuff you quite simply couldn’t make up.

I remember listening to the ‘Golf Boys’ song that did the rounds on YouTube about 10 years ago in the car with us all packed in. There’s a lyric that says ‘Stewy Stewy Cink, Stewy Stewy Cink, we got a drippy fawcet in our Stewy Stewy Cink’. Guess who pulls up at the traffic lights next to us in his US Open courtesy car? None other than 2009 Open champion, Stewart Cink.

That incidentally, was at the US Open in 2014. It was his last event as an amateur golfer, and he made the cut and won low amateur honours that week, but he’d invited me and Ted along to go and watch. We were like cats who’d not just got the cream, but were bathing in it.

We stayed in a house that belonged to a member of Pinehurst, whom Matt had won over by winning the US Amateur at Brookline 6 months before. He played the first two rounds with Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose (the defending champion and the only other Englishman in the last 50 years to lift the title until yesterday), and had played practice rounds with Rory, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Shane Lowry. In fact in practice, when I was carrying his bag, Fitz holed one from 178 with a 7iron on the 8th hole… and Shane Lowry bounded over and jumped on Matt.

It was awesome. This was as good as it got, surely? Playing in a US Open. Your pals there, caddying and mucking about at night and indulging as much as possible in player dining. That’ll do. We’d never rubbed shoulders with these stars before, so we might as well enjoy the ride.

How foolish we were to think that turning professional the following week at the Irish Open (where he wore a cap for the first time to play golf. Sponsors stuff. He got the mickey taken out of him for how small his caps were!! Tiny head) would not lead to more major appearances, and beyond.

The signs were there… from the aforementioned Sheffield under 18’s win at just 13 years old. To being off scratch at 15. Winning the North of England junior championship, winning the Faldo Series, playing for Yorkshire men’s team at 15, shooting the course record at Hallamshire. And Huddersfield. And loads of other places I’ve forgotten.

At every level he stepped it up a notch. He won the British Boys Championship. A ridiculous achievement, which earned him a scholarship to Northwestern, a brilliant academic (and golfing, Luke Donald studied at Northwestern) university in Chicago. Provided of course, he got his grades at A Level.

The fact is, he did study hard. He worked hard not because Russ and Sue or anybody else told him to… he just did. Got his head down and flew through his A Levels. The issue was, he’d barely played any golf and had a big summer ahead before heading off to the States. He’d entered Open Qualifying, and unfortunately for him, the form wasn’t there. A midweek medal performance of 78 was eclipsed by his dad, who shot 77. This was the week before Open Qualifying.

‘You’re only as good as your last game, son’ Russ was saying, winking at me as we sat in the Fitzpatrick family living room (getting more and more full with golf trophies being brought home by both offspring).

The week after, Matt qualified for the Open, went on to win the low amateur silver medal… and two months later he was crowned world number 1 amateur after he helped GB&I win the Walker Cup.

Were any of his close circle surprised when he secured his European Tour card? Or even when he went on to win in his first proper year on tour (at Woburn incidentally. If he likes a course, he likes a course)?

Or even when he won the European Masters? Or had a top 10 at the Masters? Or qualified for the Ryder Cup team?

Never surprised. Always brimming with pride and absolutely ecstatic. But for somebody who works so hard at what he does, it would be silly to be surprised.

I want to just tell you about what Matt is like as a person. He always asks about you, how’s work, how’s the house you’re renting. But he genuinely means it, he remembers stuff. The obvious difference between us lot back in Sheffield, and him, world famous golfing superstar, is the prize money and riches he’s always mindful and careful to acknowledge he’s fortunate to have. But if he wants to take a few of us away golfing at the end of the season, he does. If he wants to take us to sporting events, he can. He’d rather do it with his pals from back home.

A kinder and more impressive human being you will not meet. He’s going to rip me for that.

I’m fortunate enough to have a job where I commentate and watch Fitz do his thing. If I text him asking him about the course or a player, he replies. But get him going on Sheffield United, something topical, a trip we’ve planned away or anything else and he’s off on one.

I’ve no idea where to end this piece, which I hesitated about writing, but it’s got to stop somewhere. The brilliant pieces and thoughts and moments have all been published and savoured. But I’ll leave you with this.

Most people knew about the US Amateur victory at Brookline come Sunday evening. We’d seen the 18 year old Matt Fitzpatrick hoisting the famous golden trophy aloft. And since we’ve seen the side-by-side shot of him holding the US Open trophy on the same green.

In 2009 Fitzpatrick family and Gregg family would go up and holiday in St Andrews, Matt and I would play in the Junior Open that is held at St Andrews every year. In the clubhouse there is a trophy tucked away called the Murray Mitchell Trophy, a match play tournament played across the Old Course, the venue for this year’s Open Championship.

Engraved on it? M T Fitzpatrick.