Fitzpatrick pursues his golf dreams

For most of the eight years that Bobby Jones was the top amateur in the world, winning 13 major championships, he was a college student. By the time he won golf's grand slam in 1930, he had earned degrees from Georgia Tech, Harvard and Emory and was a member of the Georgia bar.

To people close to Jones, he was a scholar and gentleman, equally at ease with Chaucer and Shakespeare as he was with the intricacies of the golf swing.

His two engineering degrees from Georgia Tech helped him play an important role in the conception of his most enduring gift to the game, Augusta National Golf Club, where he hosted the first Masters in 1934.

The top amateurs now playing the game that Jones helped popularize around the world face the daunting challenge of turning away from their formal educations for the lucrative domain of professional golf. This was a predicament that Jones never considered.

Matthew Fitzpatrick, a 19-year-old skinny lad from Sheffield, England, thought he wanted an elite education that would provide a safety net in case he didn't make it as a tour player. Perhaps he could be a banker like his father, Russell Fitzpatrick, or a lawyer like Jones.

Nestled in the leafy Chicago suburb of Evanston, Northwestern University promised the kind of setting for Fitzpatrick that would expand his mind and his golf game. In November 2012, during his senior year of high school, he committed to play golf for the Big Ten institution.

Then came the summer of 2013. In July at the Open Championship in Scotland, he took low amateur honors with a tie for 44th. A month later, at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he became the first Englishman to win the U.S. Amateur since 1911.

The historic win lifted his spirits after learning earlier that week that he had done poorly on his A-level exams, the rigorous subject tests that high school students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take for college entrance.

After the Walker Cup in September, Fitzpatrick was headed to his freshman year at Northwestern, where he would have to resume juggling a full academic course load with golf.

Invitations to the Masters, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and other selective tournaments were now on his horizon, but he was committed to school.

He had immediate success at Northwestern. In the fall, he finished in the top 20 in all five of his collegiate events, including sharing co-medalist honors with teammate Jack Perry at the Rod Myers Invitational in October.

Northwestern is not a national power, but a talented player like Fitzpatrick might lead the Wildcats to prominence over the next four years. In Fitzpatrick's final event of the fall, the Gifford Collegiate at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, Calif., he finished 15th; he shot a 1-over 71 in the final round, which included five birdies, four bogeys and a double-bogey.

That would turn out to be his last collegiate event.

On Jan. 1, Fitzpatrick called the Northwestern men's golf coach, Pat Goss, during the Christmas break to inform him that he was tired of juggling school and athletics and would be pursuing golf full time, as an amateur, at least for the time being.

"I'm pro-education," Fitzpatrick told me. "But to be fair, it was the right decision for me based on what happened over the past summer. I wouldn't have been able to take advantage of some of the other opportunities that have come my way from winning the U.S. Amateur if I had stayed in school.

"Now I don't have to go home after a day of practice and worry about having homework to do. It just makes life a lot easier. This is the first time in my life that I have been a full-time golfer. I hope it pays off."

Goss was stunned by the news.

"Not until he called me on New Year's Day did I think he would be here anything other than four years, " said Goss, who is in his 18th season as Northwestern's golf coach. "We wouldn't have recruited him if we thought he was going to leave.

"It was a pretty big gamble to recruit Matt because we had to pass on a lot of players to get him. It's a tough blow to a program to invest in a player and then have him leave. Matt and his parents always presented it that he was going to stay all four years."

Goss knew what he was getting into when he signed Fitzpatrick. In 2005, Northwestern's Dillion Dougherty finished runner-up in the U.S. Amateur, which earned him a spot in the 2006 Masters. So the program was prepared to play several events without Fitzpatrick this spring and had worked out a plan to support him through his various commitments.

"Matt never called us to involve us in the decision," Goss said. "He had already made up his mind. When he called, it was only after he had worked up the courage to tell me."

Fitzpatrick's longtime swing instructor is Mike Walker, an Englishman, who also works with Lee Westwood. Walker believes that school was a casualty of his student's success.

"His parents and me were all laying contingencies in place because we know how hard it is to make a living out here," Walker said. "And then he did what he did over the summer. And Matt would say himself that he's not an unbelievable student. He works hard. He's no dummy. But academically, Northwestern was probably very difficult for him. It's pretty obvious now that he needs to give golf his full attention."

Last month at Bay Hill, his first regular PGA Tour event, Fitzpatrick shot 71-81, easily missing the cut. He's in full learning mode and doesn't have a defined time frame for turning pro.

"I want to play all three majors as an amateur," he said. "That could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I just want to see where I am in comparison to these guys. And see whether I can compete out here or not."

At Augusta, Fitzpatrick will stand out among some of the tall, hulking figures who now grace the tour. He looks like the English schoolboy that he has rejected for adulthood.

"He's not as short off the tee as people think," Walker said. "Because it's a slightly lower ball flight, it can be misleading.

"His greatest strength is that he doesn't really have a weakness. He's one of those golfers that doesn't do a lot wrong."

Goss wouldn't be surprised to see his former player do well at Augusta. "Matt has to go play his game to the best of ability, and more than anything, he should just relish the opportunity and enjoy himself," said Goss. "The more he smiles and waves to the crowd, the more fun he will have."

Fitzpatrick hopes to play in a practice round at Augusta with 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples, who has missed the cut only twice in 29 Masters appearances. "I want to pick his brain," Fitzgerald said.

No amateur has ever won the Masters. Since 2000, only three reigning U.S. Amateur champions have made the 36-hole cut: Ricky Barnes, Ryan Moore and Kelly Kraft.

"I'll probably be excited and a little nervous, probably when I tee off on Thursday of the Masters," Fitzpatrick said.

Yet no matter what happens in his first trip to Augusta, Fitzpatrick doesn't have to consider the start of spring classes at Northwestern. He's opted for a different education that's just beginning.