Golf is a game never as simple as anybody wants it to be. What's that? Phil Mickelson hasn't been in contention for months leading up to the Masters? Better not pick him!
Bad choice. This was the exact scenario he faced in 2010, and Lefty, seemingly out of nowhere, captured his third green jacket. The next year Mickelson blazed home in 63-65 over the final 36 holes to take the Shell Houston crown the week before Augusta.
So, Phil repeated at the Masters, right? Nope, zero rounds in the 60s and was never in contention (he finished T-27).
Heck, back in April, Tiger Woods, winner of three tournaments before the year's first major, appeared set to dissolve the demons of his major championship drought. The hype was so great, Skip Bayless felt the need to remind golf enthusiasts that Tiger was not guaranteed to capture his fifth Masters title (although this might be more on Skip for his inability to differentiate the concepts of "prohibitive favorite" and "lock to win").
We all know what happened next.
Simply put, expecting unimpeded linear progression in a sport so fickle to its very core is a rather foolish undertaking.
That brings us to the exploits of one Matthew Fitzpatrick.
The Northwestern freshman famously pieced together a boyhood summer for the ages. The 18-year-old survived sectional qualifying to make his way to the Open Championship at Muirfield, a place where he posted a T-44 finish to earn the Silver Medal for low amateur. He followed that up two weeks later with a second place showing at the English Amateur and then tried his luck on the other side of the pond.There, at the U.S. Amateur, Fitzpatrick produced his greatest performance to date. Facing down a host of the world's preeminent amateur golfing talents, the Englishman won six consecutive matches to become the first man from his country to win the event in over 100 years.
One would believe that, coming off that two months of golf, especially the Amateur victory against a field of that caliber, Fitzpatrick would step in on his first day as a Wildcat and seamlessly start obliterating his collegiate opponents.
This has not been the case.
In his first career collegiate event, Fitzpatrick and the Cats were stacked up against a 15-team field that offered a hodgepodge of the best golfing teams in the nation, with predictable results.
The freshman carded a 76 in his opening round at NU, and did little better over the final 36, tacking on scores of 75 and 76 to finish 53rd, a full 17 strokes behind the winner.
An easier slate of opponents and a home-course designation in the season's second event brought better results. Fitzpatrick opened in 66 at the Knollwood Club to capture the early lead, but a second-round 76 stalled the early momentum and relegated him to a third-place finish.
This was the same young man who won the U.S. freaking Amateur. He can't place first at a home event against a relatively benign field? What is wrong here?
The answer is nothing. A third event has now passed and Fitzpatrick remains win-less in his very nascent college career (he placed T23 at the team's Erin Hills-based tournament this past weekend). Northwestern fans should not be panicking though.
It may be a massive cliché, but patience is a virtue. In golf, it is a core tenant to success in this game.
Fitzpatrick has not experienced massive regression as a golfer in a mere two months. He's simply adjusting to a new environment. The English lad is taking up his new residence a full ocean away from his old place of dwelling, a fact that is not insignificant to his golf. The format of American collegiate game also takes some getting used to. Certainly Fitzpatrick is no stranger to strong fields, but the combined individual and team structure of United States university-level golf is rather foreign, or at least little used in recent times, for the newly-minted Evanstonian.
Also, let's not forget that, as much talent as he has, Fitzpatrick needed to produce an incredible burst of golf to capture the Silver Medal at the Open and the outright title at the Amateur. You would've expected his game to come back down to Earth a bit after such masterful performances.
All of this is to say, these three tournaments shouldn't deter you: Fitzpatrick is still the real deal. The No. 1 World Amateur Golf Ranking still belongs to him and a top-3 already appears on his resume three tournaments into his college career.
When true comfort sinks in, the results will begin to pick up (please do not expect him to win every tournament though, even Tiger won less than half of the events he played in college). Fitzpatrick has also admitted to scoring poorly--putting up numbers worse than one's actual play would indicate--as of late, something that occurs in cycles and should alleviate itself rather soon.
Fitzpatrick also knows that he is in no way expected to carry this squad. The consistent No. 1 from last season and somewhat forgotten man in all of the hoopla surrounding the young U.S. Amateur champion, Jack Perry remains a vital part of this enterprise for the 2013-2014 season.
In fact, the senior has played more like a No. 1 than Fitzpatrick. Following a disappointing 72nd-place showing in the season-opener, Perry's play produced a 2nd and a T-10th, both tops on the team for those tournaments.
The California native remains a dangerous man in the collegiate sphere, and although Fitzpatrick is expected to take the reins as the No. 1, Perry could be one of the best No. 2s in the country.
The others rounding out the starting roster are not to be discounted either. Matthew Negri, a junior and the No. 3 at the moment, isn't far removed from a two-tournament stretch late last winter where he placed second and first among his teammates respectively. He can step up when others are struggling.
Bennett Lavin, another junior, struggled in the spring portion of the 2012-2013 campaign. Prior to that though, he was a highly effectively No. 3, a player reliable for a solid showing basically every time he teed it up. The No. 4 now, if he can regain that previous form, more stability on the back end awaits.
Even the No. 5 is solid. Joshua Jamieson is only a sophomore, yet cracked the starting lineup last spring and has not relinquished his spot since.
These are the players Fitzpatrick can lean back on when he is struggling. This is not a makeshift group carried to greatness by one star player. It is a collective group effort, albeit with what should prove to be a brutally efficient 1-2 punch.
Fitzpatrick is expected to do great things, produce a "Luke Donald-type career" in his time at Northwestern. The fact he hasn't won in three events is not unsettling in the least.
Give it time, things will pick up. And remember that Fitzpatrick does not have to be legendary for the team to excel.
This squad is the sum of its collective parts, not a one-man show.