The golfer who is officially the No. 1 amateur in America is here this week, playing in the Walker Cup in Southampton. That distinction is good news for the Walker Cup, which begins early Saturday morning at National Golf Links of America. It is dubious news for America because the golfer, U.S. Amateur champion Matt Fitzpatrick, is from England and is playing for the visiting side.
Fitzpatrick turned 19 Monday, the day he and his fellow members of the Great Britain and Ireland squad went to a Yankees game as part of their New York tour. He has had more achievements as a teenager than most golfers have in a lifetime. Chief among those was becoming the first Englishman since Harold Hilton in 1911 to win the U.S. Amateur.
That might not help him in the alternate-shot matches that begin at 7:15 a.m. Saturday, or in the singles, which begin at 1 Saturday afternoon (Golf Channel, 4 p.m.). But it sure won't hurt.
"I think all of the achievements I've managed to complete have prepared me really well," he said at National Golf Links on Friday afternoon, a few hours before the opening ceremony. "I think the biggest thing that I'll get out of those is just playing in front of a big crowd. It's really nerve-racking playing in front of a crowd. So having that experience definitely helps."
He has matured quickly, although he doesn't necessarily look it. Fitzpatrick is 5-9, 133 pounds and has a boyish face. He is a fierce, iron-willed competitor, who was the low amateur in the British Open.
That was part of a whirlwind that will not end with the closing ceremony here Sunday evening. The next day, Fitzpatrick is off to Chicago, where he will start his freshman year at Northwestern. He will be following the footsteps of countryman Luke Donald, former world No. 1 player on the PGA Tour, who still is based in Chicago. The footsteps are only coincidental, though. Donald didn't recruit Fitzpatrick and the two never met until they chatted for a few moments at Muirfield in July.
"Good academics," Fitzpatrick said, identifying his motivation for choosing an American college in a cold-weather climate. "That was important to my family. Also, the coach had a good character reference. I wanted someone who is more than just a manager."
The coach, Pat Goss, said that Fitzpatrick is the school's most significant recruit since Donald, whom Goss continued to coach until the past week. Looking back on his own development, Fitzpatrick sees nothing auspicious about it. "I don't know, really. Dad played, Dad introduced me to golf when I was younger," he said. "Then in the past few years, I changed coaches to Mike Walker. I think he's the best in the world, I've said it countless times. He's probably the reason I've done so well.
"No offense to myself; I've worked hard."
His development is representative of the globalization of golf. Great Britain and Ireland had been dominated by the United States through much of the history of the Walker Cup, which began here at National Golf Links in 1922. But it has won six of the past 12 matches, including the most recent one in Scotland two years ago.
Team captain Nigel Edwards cited the fact that players on his side are playing college golf in the United States, which is fostering their growth as golfers and young men.
There is some thought that they will have an extra advantage this weekend at National. It is more like the courses that British players normally play. As American player Patrick Rodgers said Friday, "I think this is the most linksy golf course I've played in the United States."
Fitzpatrick said that on the summer circuit in the United Kingdom, all but three of the annual tournaments are on links, rather than tree-lined parkland courses. "Maybe it gives us a little bit of an advantage. But, I mean, the course is the same for everyone," he said.
Fair enough. The same claim was made in 1977, when the Walker Cup was at neighboring Shinnecock Hills. It appeared to be a big advantage for the visiting squad. Still the United States won handily, 16-8.
And the last time it was held at National, the inaugural event in 1922, a star-packed American team won, 8-4. The bottom line is that the Walker Cup generally is won on skill, not on any perceived layout advantage.
Players on both sides think they have won already, getting to play at National. Nathan Smith, who is on his third American Walker Cup team, said that because of the historical context, "this is the one you want to make."
Rhys Pugh of Great Britain and Ireland knows all the background, such as the fact that renowned golf writer Bernard Darwin came across the Atlantic in 1922 to cover the event and wound up playing. "I'm kind of a history geek about golf," he said.
Fitzpatrick added, "For the past few days, he's been quoting golf trivia."
Notes & quotes: Nigel Edwards, the Great Britain and Ireland captain, returned to the team Thursday after having gone home to Wales to be with his father, who suffers heart and kidney ailments. Edwards said doctors told him the elder Edwards is doing better . . . Each player on both teams has been assigned a local caddie from National Golf Links. There was some joking that the visiting players might be leery about having American caddies, but the players said they have no complaints. Bobby Wyatt of the U.S. team has former Jet Kurt Sohn on his bag.