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Fitzpatrick's First Big Decision

by John Hopkins - January 13, 2014

Barely two weeks into a new year and a couple of stories have knocked us onto our heels. Those with news antennae attuned to relationships probably expected the engagement of Rory McIlroy to Caroline Wozniacki.

But Matthew Fitzpatrick, the Englishman who won the U.S. Amateur last summer on his way to being named the No. 1 amateur in the world, leaving Northwestern University in Chicago after one term? That definitely came from the blind side.

Fitzpatrick played some spectacular golf in 2013. He won the silver medal for being the low amateur in the Open at Muirield, finishing tied 44th. He won the U.S. Amateur, the first Englishman to achieve this since Harold Hilton in 1911, and then received the Mark H. McCormack Medal as the leading men’s amateur in the world rankings at year’s end.

This sort of play last year earned him places in this year’s Masters, the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and the Open at Royal Liverpool and suggested that he will one day play as a professional, as he certainly will. But most people had not expected him to take this step towards playing the game full time quite so soon.

Fitzpatrick, 19, told a small circle of friends in the UK of his intention when he was home for Christmas. It was a surprise in Britain, where he is admired as much for his character and levelheadedness as his golf, and to his teammates and coach in the U.S. Fitzpatrick ranked second for his university team last autumn with a 71.73 stroke average. He had three top-20 and two top-10 finishes in five events.

In making his startling announcement, Fitzpatrick said the right things. The people, the school and the city of Chicago “exceeded my expectations” before adding the money words: “Based on the opportunities I have right now ... I feel it is important to dedicate 100 percent of my time to the game ... ”

Pete Cowen, the coach, is an inluence on Fitzpatrick. “The U.S. is not for everyone and it wasn’t for him,” Cowen said. “His girlfriend had been out there and liked it. Lovely setup, lovely people and all that but he felt it wasn’t right for him.”

Cowen said that he was certain that Fitzpatrick was not going to turn pro, which was what some people feared would happen. “Why would he do that? He would lose his automatic entry into those big events. He is going to remain amateur for at least a year. I can promise you that.”

Nigel Edwards captained the GB&I team for which Fitzpatrick played at last year’s Walker Cup. “I was surprised at Christmas when Matt told me of his decision,” Edwards said. “I had spoken to him and his parents and they were very keen on Matt continuing his education.

“He said he would like to remain an amateur for at least two years. On form, he would be a member of the England team in the World Amateur Team Championship, the Eisenhower Trophy, in Japan later this year.”

Some decisions are clear-cut, others are not. Shall we list the pros and cons of this one? Reasons for staying in Chicago: Outstanding practice facilities at Northwestern; the sharp edge of college golf; the eagle eye and friendliness of Pat Goss, the golf coach and help and advice of David Inglis, his British-born assistant and a former GB&I Walker Cup player himself; the chance to talk to Luke Donald, an alumnus of Northwestern who studied there for four years and later became world No. 1; Chicago in summer; the emphasis on academic work.

Reasons for leaving: The emphasis on academic work; the difficulty of having a girlfriend back in Britain; less time to practice; Chicago in winter; the ability to play full-time amateur golf in Britain while being funded largely by England Golf; not being restricted in playing time by NCAA mandate; finding that Donald’s travel schedule late last year prevented the two Englishmen bonding; discovering that collegiate golf in the U.S. is stroke play dominated. “They’re very keen on numbers over there,” Cowen said. “Thing is, there’s more to golf than numbers.”

There is an echo in all of this of another Englishman who won a scholarship to a university in the US and walked out soon after arriving. Nearly 40 years ago Nick Faldo decided that his golf was not improving while he was at the University of Houston. “I wanted to practice but the coach made me play stroke-play events all the time,” Faldo said. “I’m marking time.”

There are more similarities between Faldo and Fitzpatrick than that their surnames begin with the same letter, they are both English, both men who know their minds and both highly talented golfers. Faldo’s decision to return home after 10 weeks was only one of many he took against advice. Six major championships and 98 weeks spent as world No. 1 illustrate that he was probably right.

In time Fitzpatrick’s decision might be proved to have been just as perceptive, which will dispel the whiff of disappointment that he has left behind him in golf circles in America.

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