Matt Fitzpatrick is posing for his closeup, giving the photographer plenty of shots to choose from. The dramatic setting – this is Tinseltown, after all – is The Los Angeles Country Club, getting in shape for a mid-June closeup of its own as the host, for the first time, of the U.S. Open.
Can you give me a little smile, Matt? Perfect, thanks.
Can you stare a few feet over my head? Nice, wonderful.
Click, click, click.
Such are the obligations of being a major champion. Everyone wants to know who you are, what makes you tick. To his credit, Fitzpatrick doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least. He’s learned how to play this game, too.
After about a half-hour, it’s a wrap.
Fitzpatrick takes a seat on a bench, where he is soon transported back in time. To the 11-year-old boy who made the two-hour journey with his father, Russell, from their home in Sheffield, England, to attend the first round of the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. The two watched Tiger Woods, who would go on to win the Claret Jug that year, play his final hole of the day. “It was really cool,” Fitzpatrick recalls.
Asked if he could have ever imagined all those years ago that he would one day be the defending U.S. Open champion – he edged Scottie Scheffler and Will Zalatoris by a stroke at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the same course where he’d won the U.S. Amateur nine years before – Fitzpatrick begins to answer when a cart nearby comes to a stop.
Driving the cart is none other than Woods himself, doing some advance scouting of LACC’s North Course.
“Well done, Fitzy!” Woods shouts.
“Thanks!” Fitzy responds.
For Fitzpatrick, 28, the silver trophy beside him displaying the names of Woods (three times) and other U.S. Open champions from A (Anderson, Willie, a four- time winner) to Z (Zoeller, Fuzzy), the brief exchange unites his past and present.
“To be here with one of these,” Fitzpatrick says about the trophy, “is pretty surreal.”
Even so, what took place last June at The Country Club has apparently not gone to his head. Yes, he has high expectations for the future. He’s a U.S. Open champion, after all.
At the same time, Fitzpatrick seems mindful of maintaining the balance between his personal and
professional lives. Between working hard on his craft, yet not working too hard.
Good thing he’s come so quickly to this level of self-awareness. History provides examples of major champions who tinker with their games to prove their one week of greatness wasn’t a fluke. Some are never the same.
“Just trying to be less hard on myself and having a little time away to relax and reset,” Fitzpatrick said. Before, he’d take a day off here and there, but “I was probably still thinking about golf.” He admits he’s not there yet – perspective is always a work in progress – but he knows where he wants to go.
A conversation after Brookline with fellow Englishman Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, has helped. Willett advised him to set up a playing schedule that works for him and not try to appease others.
“That meant a lot,” he said, “coming from him.”
Getting sound advice is nothing new for Fitzpatrick, who took up the game as a youngster at Hallamshire Golf Club in Sheffield, with parents who encouraged him but didn’t push him.
“If you want to go to practice and play, we’ll take you to the course,” they told him. But he noted, “It was never, ‘You must go out there and practice.’”
He played competitive soccer until he was 15, when he realized he couldn’t afford an injury that might affect his golf – though he still roots for his beloved Sheffield United.
His first breakthrough came in the 2012 R&A Boys Amateur Championship at Notts Golf Club. In the final, he took down Henry James, 10 and 8, the most lopsided result in 38 years. Up to that point, Fitzpatrick said, he wasn’t seen as an elite junior. His performance helped him believe he could keep competing at the highest level.
A year later came his victory in the U.S. Amateur, becoming the first English player to win the event since Harold Hilton in 1911. Fitzpatrick was in top form, especially his short game.
Corey Conners, who lost to him in the semifinals, 2 and 1, was quite impressed.
“He’d miss a green, and I’d hit a pretty safe shot to the middle of the green thinking I had the upper hand,” recalled Conners, now a fellow PGA Tour pro. “He’d chip it to gimme range, and I’d be grinding to two-putt and halve the hole. He didn’t give me anything.”
His magical week in New England couldn’t have worked out better for Fitzpatrick on a number of fronts. His younger brother, Alex, now an accomplished golfer in his own right – he turned professional in 2022 – served as his caddie, and they stayed with a family, the Fultons, who have become like a second family to him.
A month later, as a member of the Great Britain and Ireland Team in the 2013 Walker Cup, he won three of his four matches. Still, Fitzpatrick, a freshman that fall at Northwestern University, didn’t suddenly assume he was destined for greatness.
“A couple of 80s in my first tournament,” he said, “didn’t exactly scream, ‘I’m going to make it as a professional.’”
He loved college life, though he left after one semester.
“I had opportunities to play professional tournaments, and that was important to me,” he said. “I didn’t want to turn them down when I knew I could always go back to university – maybe not Northwestern, but somewhere.”
Safe to say Fitzpatrick made the most of those opportunities. In the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, he was low amateur, tying for 48th. Having already finished as low amateur in the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, Fitzpatrick became the first golfer since Bob Jones in 1930 to be low amateur in both majors concurrently.
The next step after Pinehurst was to turn pro, which didn’t start well. He missed the cut in six of his first eight appearances on the European (now DP World) Tour before finally turning things around. Fitzpatrick, the youngest player in the field at 21, picked up his first win in the 2015 British Masters at Woburn Golf Club in England.
In 2016, his victories included the Nordea Masters in Sweden and the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, where he sealed the deal with a clutch closing up-and-down from a greenside bunker. Fitzpatrick also made his first Ryder Cup Team that year, though he lost both of his matches in Europe’s lopsided defeat to the Americans at Hazeltine National in Minnesota.
Speaking of clutch shots, nothing is likely to top the one Fitzpatrick pulled off on the 18th hole last year at Brookline. Leading by one stroke over Zalatoris and Scheffler, who had already finished, he pulled his drive on the par 4 into a left fairway bunker, dangerously close to the lip.
Fitzpatrick could have played it safe, hoping to make par by getting up and down from the fairway, as Payne Stewart did after driving into the rough when he famously edged Phil Mickelson in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
Fitzpatrick didn’t play it safe.
He pulled off the shot of his life, the ball soaring to the green from 159 yards away and coming to rest about 20 feet above the hole. When he two-putted and Zalatoris burned the edge with his birdie attempt, Matt Fitzpatrick was the 122nd U.S. Open champion.
“That was one of the better shots under pressure in the history of the U.S. Open,” Zalatoris said. “It was an unbelievable par, unbelievable shot.”
An unbelievable week, really. To be back at a place that has meant so much to him, Fitzpatrick couldn’t have been more comfortable. (Worth noting: only Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach and Juli Inkster at Prairie Dunes in Kansas have also accomplished winning an Amateur and an Open on the same course.) That included staying again with the Fultons. Why mess with success?
Not everything, however, was the same as it had been in 2013.
He was working with a veteran caddie, Billy Foster, who had been on the bag for Seve Ballesteros and Lee Westwood, among others. Nor did he dine at the same restaurants he did nine years earlier – for a very good reason.
“I had a chef this time,” Fitzpatrick said.
Foster has a high opinion of his man, although he may not have been the biggest believer at first.
“When I started working with him four years ago, he said, ‘I want to be world No. 1,’” recalled Foster, who said he scoffed at the young man’s lofty aspiration. He thought that if Fitzpatrick “could get in the top 20 in the world it would be a great achievement.”
Foster isn’t scoffing any longer.
“He is by far the most professional player I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “Who’s to say he can’t go further and further? He’s improving all the time.”
How he’s doing that is something well known by his peers on tour: by analyzing all the time. All. The. Time.
Ever since he was about 15, Fitzpatrick has been recording what he does on every shot.
Every shot. It helps him develop an accurate assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.
“I’d feel lost without it,” said Fitzpatrick, who the stats show has gained nearly 15 yards in driving distance since 2019.
After jotting the information down, usually between shots, he sends the data to a friend, who puts it in an Excel spreadsheet. Edoardo Molinari, the 2005 U.S. Amateur champion and now a player on the DP World Tour who came up with StatisticGolf, a formula for measuring player performance, then issues a report.
Other players are impressed, if not incredulous.
“I wish I was as diligent as that, but I can’t say that I am,” Rory McIlroy said.
When he was told that Fitzpatrick has been doing it for about 12 years, McIlroy quipped: “I don’t know if I could do it for 12 hours.”
Fitzpatrick will be at it again, no doubt, when he tries to defend his title at LACC.
Is another title – and another closeup – in the cards? He’s already authored one Hollywood ending.
Michael Arkush, who has written or co-written 15 books, is a Southern California-based writer who has been a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times and contributed to The New York Times and Washington Post.