Why Open week means so much to England's Matthew Southgate

Matthew Southgate missed the cut last week at the Scottish Open, but that came after he'd qualified for The Open and then tied for second at the Irish Open. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

SOUTHPORT, England -- Open week has always been special for Matthew Southgate. "Best week of the year," he said, grinning broadly midway through his practice round at Royal Birkdale. "I haven't changed one bit since I was a kid. Soon as I rock up and see that big yellow scoreboard on 18, I'm absolutely buzzing."

There are plenty of golfers and golf fans who feel much the same way, but few have a tale to tell that's similar to Southgate's -- because the second or third week of July has not only been very good to Matthew Southgate, it's also been very bad.

His family is from Southend, a town on the Essex coast near London, but long journeys to the Open rota courses of Scotland and northwest England were staples of the family summer.

Southgate's father, Ian, was the driving force, an avid golfer and ardent Tom Watson fan. In 1984 his young family was in the grandstand behind the 18th green at St. Andrews when Seve Ballesteros holed his putt and saluted the crowd with his shuddering raised arm, like the revolutionary leader of European golf.

Matthew was born in 1988, and 11 years later it was his turn to have the best seat in the house for a very different golfing climax - Seve's heroic drama replaced by Jean van de Velde's tragicomic slapstick.

"My dad has been a member at Carnoustie since the 1980s, so we knew a load of the marshals," Southgate explained. "When Van de Velde was playing the last hole, they called us kids forward to sit on the bridge across the Barry Burn.

"I was right there with my legs over the water when he was getting in. Pretty amazing, except I'm not sure I realized exactly what was going on, to be honest."

The following day, Southgate was caddying for his dad around the course when the group suggested he join them for the final hole.

"They said, 'Come on, Matt. Van de Velde made seven, let's see if you can make five.' I did, as well. Knocked it short of the burn, chipped on, two-putted."

Around him the empty grandstands creaked and rattled in the wind while he daydreamed that one day he'd be playing in front of them again, but packed with thousands of spectators calling his name.

More important for his future development was an encounter with his hero, Sergio Garcia. "Sergio showed me his hands. They were covered in callouses, and he said, 'If you want to be a professional golfer, you need hands like this.' I've never forgotten that. Never."

In 2009, Southgate (full name Matthew Arthur Tom -- "Arthur after my granddad, Tom after Watson") was at home in Southend, concentrating on his rise up the amateur rankings. There was, however, a distraction: With 18 holes to play at Turnberry, the family hero, now a 59-year-old, was leading The Open.

"I got dad up at 3 in the morning," Southgate said. "He thought I was mad. I basically kidnapped him and drove 500 miles because there was no way we could not be there if Tom had won."

He hesitated and added with a smile: "Cried our eyes out when he didn't."

By 2014, Southgate was a young professional who had shown glimpses of what he could achieve in the game, without cementing a place on the European Tour. His Open debut that year was like his career in microcosm: He was victorious in qualifying at Sunningdale, but then he missed the cut at The Open at Royal Liverpool.

The dream of playing in The Open had been a letdown. He felt low, but he had no idea how low he would go in the next 12 months.

In July 2015 there was no return to St Andrews (scene of his greatest triumph as an amateur in the 2010 Links Trophy) and no redemption after his flat Open bow. Instead, he spent Wednesday of Open week in the hospital, undergoing surgery for testicular cancer, and the rest of the week he watched on television.

"That experience proved how much I wanted to be a golfer," he said. "It's such a special week, and I had nothing to do but dwell on what it meant to me. I vowed to get back."

And he did. In 2016, 12 months after the surgery, he'd won final qualifying for a second time and finished T-12 at Royal Troon, the highlight of a breakthrough year that also saw him finish fourth in the Irish Open.

"I've been coming to this championship for so long, it's become natural to me; it feels like I'm at home." Matthew Southgate

Two weeks ago, his 2017 season was in flux. He was nonexempt from his favorite week of the year and was floundering in the European Tour's Race to Dubai. Cue some magic from the Prince of Open Qualifying.

At Royal Cinque Ports, a venerable old club on the southeast coast of England, a stretch of linksland that hosted The Open in 1909 and 1920, Southgate sprang from the pack in the second of two rounds to shoot 6-under 65 and complete a third final qualifying win in four years.

"I think my passion for The Open just gives me extra concentration," he said. "And when it gets tough, when there are big rewards, it seems to bring something out in me, just like when I got into contention in Ireland."

Ah, yes, Ireland. Thirty-six hours after signing his card at qualifying, Southgate was on the first tee at Portstewart in the Irish Open, the tournament that had turned his career around in 2016. He needed yet another repeat performance.

"I've been under a bit of pressure this year," he said "A lot of people expected me to just play at the same standard as last year, and I feel I've been playing like I'm trying to prove I can back it up.

"But walking to the first tee, knowing I was in The Open, knowing I was playing well, in an event I love, a massive event, I just thought, 'Come on, Matthew, get stuck in.'"

In May 2016, his fourth place in Ireland, and with it retention of his card, just 10 months after the surgery, prompted tears of relief and joy on the green.

This time, a first-round 65 presented the opportunity to better that result, and his final-lap 66 saw him grab the chance with both hands. His T2 was a career-best finish and secured his playing rights for 2018.

"It was quite funny this time," Southgate said. "I was expecting to break down again, but leaving the green I was thinking, 'Hang on, I'm still smiling. I haven't cried this time.' To be honest, I was just beaming for about five minutes."

Now he is hungry for more Open fun.

"I've been coming to this championship for so long, it's become natural to me; it feels like I'm at home. The last 150 yards of the final hole last year did get to me a bit, seeing my family in the grandstands and everyone cheering me.

"I was proud to think I'd achieved something, but it also gives me a big goal of bettering it. I remember how gutted Tom was when he didn't win at Turnberry, and he's won five. That's how special this week is. You want more of it."

There are 52 weeks in every year, but for Matthew Southgate this week matters more than most.