There was Phil Mickelson standing all smiles with the Claret Jug firmly in tow, coiling his mitts around the grand prize in a manner remindful of the vice grip a boa constrictor exercises on its prey. Next to him was Henrik Stenson, the icy Swede who held the Silver Plate, the award doled out to that year's Open Championship runner-up. Not exactly the piece of hardware he was looking to obtain, but for a man ranked a lowly 230th in the world in the first month of 2012, the high showing was another sign the once formidable Stenson was finding his way back to golf's elite.
Then came the strange part. Directly to the left of these two grizzled veterans and champions of past years stood what appeared to be but a boy firmly set in his youth. If anything, it had to be a mistake --the lad looked the part of a male in his early teens, and was placed in direct proximity to the two highest finishers at the world's oldest golfing championship. Sure, he had in his hands the Silver Medal, the award given to the Open's leading amateur who is, by the current state of money in professional sports, likely to be of young age. But was there ever such a Silver Medal winner who looked quite this young?
Whatever the case, Matthew Fitzpatrick probably doesn't care. The 18-year-old will mosey his way onto the Northwestern campus as a freshman this fall and he will do so with some notable hardware in hand. The young Brit shot a final-round 72 on Sunday at Muirfield to build on previous rounds of 73, 76 and 73 to finish in a T-44 at +10 and earn him the victory in the race for the best performing amateur at the 2013 Open. Fitzpatrick began the day just two strokes ahead of Jimmy Mullen (the only other amateur to make the cut), but that 72 in tough conditions allowed the future Wildcat to best his fellow Brit by five shots.
That is how Fitzpatrick found himself next to Mickelson and Stenson with the Silver Medal in hand. And with some perspective an observer will realize something quite startling: the baby-faced Brit actually fit right into the scene. Because while Fitzpatrick may seem younger than he looks, his golfing pedigree is not kid's work. The 18-year-old is, in fact, none other than the latest prodigal son to come out of Great Britain.
That classification was really born last year. It was then that Fitzpatrick entered Britain's most prestigious 18-and-under tournament, the Boys Amateur Championship, and summarily whipped the field. In the match play format, Fitzpatrick, then 17, dispatched three of his first five opponents before they reached the 16th tee and put an extra whooping on his competitor in the finals, running up a 10&8 victory in the 36-hole contest.
The winning result was the first huge notice of Fitzpatrick's elite-level amateur game and it wasn't the last. The Brit, at this moment, sits at No. 9 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. That is No. 9 among all amateur golfers on this entire planet. Such a rank puts Fitzpatrick among the biggest of college stars in the United States, with names like Michael Kim, Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers in his vicinity.
What a player of this caliber could do for the Northwestern squad is boundless. Head Coach Pat Goss has already gone on record saying he expects Fitzpatrick to contribute to the team from the get go and cites him as NU's most important recruit since the likes of Luke Donald, who was only the No. 1 golfer in the world for a short period of time.
The Cats already have one of the Top 60 college players in the country in Jack Perry. With the added punch of Fitzpatrick, NU may not just be in line for a return to Nationals, it could be a dangerous squad to reckon with at that event.
There is plenty of optimism around this Northwestern men's golf program. The team lost only one significant starter from last season and kept their ace (Perry) for his senior year. Tack on the arrival of a potential world-beater in Fitzpatrick and a formula for success looks to be rapidly stirring in Evanston.
Fitzpatrick is yet to hit a single shot in collegiate competition, though. One would expect the 18-year-old's game to come out in full force once he faces the best amateurs the States have to offer. Then again, another young Brit by the name of Justin Rose captured the Silver Medal [spectacular fashion] at the age of 17 in 1998, and proceeded to miss the first 21 cuts of his career when he turned pro later that year. The transition from 18-and-under play to college may not be quite the leap it is from the former to the pros, but the point remains the same: prodigies cannot take their success as an inevitable fact.
If people were looking for signs this week discrediting the idea Fitzpatrick could make a large impact even in his freshman year, they all certainly failed to detect any. The Brit made his way to the Open via a qualifier, did not yield to Muirfield's difficulty and posted a quality score for the tournament. Along the way he got to rub shoulders with some of the game's elder statesmen. Fitzpatrick scored a practice round with Tom Watson (maybe the single living player any golfer would go to first for advice on how to manage links golf) and played out his final-round with Fred Couples.
Couples himself stated after the round that he was convinced in his playing partner's talent. So is Northwestern, of course. Fitzpatrick's week in Scotland pointed toward a golfing future that could be quite prosperous for NU.
Considering all of this, now does it appear strange that Fitzpatrick was present to see Mickelson and Stenson accept and receive their prizes? Should a top-10 ranked amateur really be intimidated by a pair of dudes who would be rather ancient compared to him?
If things go according to plan, Fitzpatrick will thrive immediately at NU. Expectations are going to be high and many believe Fitzpatrick will hold up first-place trophies of his own for NU in due time.
The future is certainly bright for men's golf at NU. As long as Fitzpatrick doesn't fly too close to the sun, the team may be in for quite the ride.