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Longform: Fitzpatrick Brings Unmatched Prestige to NU Golf

In 1913, Francis Ouimet arrived at the 17th green at The Country Club desperately needing his birdie putt to drop. He rammed the 20-footer into the back of the cup, forced a playoff and, the very next day, buried another birdie try of a similar distance on the exact same surface to clinch a stunning U.S. Open victory.

In 1999, Justin Leonard faced a 45-foot birdie effort up a slope on that penultimate green in Brookline with a chance to essentially win the U.S. the Ryder Cup. The putt sped into the center of the hole, Leonard and the rest of the American squad broke into hysterics and circled around the green in jubilation at a miraculous comeback, with the Europeans fuming all the while.

In 2013, no dramatic scene took place in the waning moments of an important event on that 17th green, and it was a man from the other side of the pond smarting at his efforts on The Country Club layout.

Matthew Fitzpatrick won the 113th U.S. Amateur Sunday, becoming the first Englishman in over a century to capture America's most prestigious amateur event.

The 18-year-old defeated Oliver Goss, a sophomore at Tennessee, quite convincingly on some of golf's most hallowed grounds, fashioning a 4&3 victory in the 36-hole final. The match, and the championship, officially ended on the 33rd green when Goss, standing over a five-foot par putt he needed to drop to extend the match, saw his effort hit the left side of the cup and roll on by.

Just like that Fitzpatrick was the U.S. Amateur champion and hugging all of the family that made it out to the Boston area for this event. Within minutes he was holding up the Havemeyer Trophy for all to see and had the nice and shiny Gold Medal hanging around his neck. He's exempt into the U.S. Open and Open Championship and is likely to receive an invitation to the Masters (a mere formality). And let's just say he has a pretty good shot of making his way onto Great Britain and Ireland's Walker Cup squad.

Not a bad for a kid who is yet to partake in the college experience.

The march to victory wasn't exactly a cakewalk though. Over the opening 18 in the final match, Fitzpatrick and Goss waged an epic back-and-forth duel. The duo only halved one of the first eight holes, as the lead changed hands four times in that stretch. Fitzpatrick fell 1-down through the first six (one of which included an uncharacteristic three-putt), but wielded the flagstick magic that has been present all week once again on the 7th, burying a 35-foot birdie putt to square back the match.

Five holes later, Fitzpatrick stroked home a 22-footer for another birdie to regain a 1-up advantage, and the most dramatic moment of the whole day came on the final hole of the morning 18, when Fitzpatrick nailed a 25-foot par putt effort followed by Goss chipping in for the same score to halve the hole and remain 1-down.

The exchange amounted to only the seventh halved hole of the match and seemed to portend a dramatic conclusion to the event.

But, Fitzpatrick wasn't having it. After a couple of fluctuations over the front nine of the second 18, the Englishman stood on the 28th tee nursing a one-hole lead. Then, he used a method the USGA would be proud of to run away from his opponent: parring the course to death.

On the toughest stretch of The Country Club's Composite layout, Fitzpatrick made six consecutive pars, the last one coming after holing a gutty 10-footer. Goss couldn't keep up, bogeying the 28th, 32nd and 33rd holes and frittering away the championship in the process.

This was quite a way for the incoming Northwestern freshman to cap off what has been a remarkable year. Fitzpatrick won the Boys' Amateur Championship (the equivalent of the U.S. Junior Amateur only on the other side of the pond) 364 days ago to make his name known on the international stage, and did not stop from there.

He then proceeded to qualify for the Open Championship, win the Silver Medal for finishing as low amateur at the event, place second in the English Amateur and finally produce a victorious effort at the U.S. Amateur.

All the while, Fitzpatrick has climbed to No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR), and, barring some serious misunderstanding of this system, should move to the top spot when the rankings are next updated after this week's results.

If so, Fitzpatrick will earn the Mark H. McCormack Medal for being the WAGR No. 1 at the end of the amateur season, quite high honors indeed.

Now comes the important question, what can Matt Fitzpatrick do for Northwestern?

When Pat Goss got the 18-year-old signed onto the Wildcat train back in November, this was a well-lauded get for a program that certainly has great presence on the national stage but isn't going to be mixed up with the University of Texas or Oklahoma State golf programs any time soon.

Now, it is borderline legendary acquistion.

Goss has stated in previous months that this is the most important recruit the men's golf program has obtained since Luke Donald, whose college career is so ridiculous it's not even worth getting into (13 tournament wins, four All-American selections, one NCAA Championship and zero tournament finishes outside the top 30). For many, the comparison to the world-class Donald is perfectly apt for Fitzpatrick; after all, the they're both English, both Northwestern men and both possess incredible short-games.

But, such typecasting is both unfair and lazy.

First off, Fitzpatrick would contend that his short game (at least the chipping and pitching part) is the worst section of his game. His touch on and around the greens was a sight to behold at Brookline this week, as he seemingly constantly fought his way out of jams with his wedges and the flatstick.

But he has been quick to remind that his caddie, 14-year-old brother Alex, is the short-game wizard of the family, and it's not even close.

"I know for a fact on stats chipping and pitching is the worst part of my game, and that's a fact, definitely from last year's stats and definitely from this year's stats," Fitzpatrick said after his semifinal win on Saturday. "The good thing about having my brother on the bag, as well, is he is a short game wizard. He could get up‑and‑down out of a dustbin. It's actually frightening the stuff I've seen him do, to be fair, and I did ask him actually a few times on the way around what shot he thought I should play."

That leaves two main common denominators: country of origin and college of choice. If that's enough to tout Fitzpatrick as the "next Luke Donald," we're really lowering our standards for comparison. In that case, we should've been calling Tiger Woods the next Tom Watson while at Stanford and Jordan Spieth must have been the heir to the Ben Crenshaw throne during his time in Longhorn country. Heck, any dominant American golfer at Ohio State or Wake Forest can be seen as clones to Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer respectively.

So, such an exercise will prove fruitless. Fitzpatrick is in fact a far more accomplished golfer than Donald was at the age of 18. He'll likely be the No. 1-ranked amateur golfer on the entire planet very soon, a distinction Donald never would've touched before his college days if these rankings had existed back then. That U.S. Amateur title Fitzpatrick just captured, Donald never even made it to the finals of this event, let alone win one, let alone win one when he was 18.

The point here is not to disparage Donald, but to understand that Fitzpatrick is not the same player the most accomplished golfer in school history was. He's his own man, and as hard as this is to believe, his career at NU could trump what Donald did during his time in Evanston.

The hype has been building and building around this 18-year-old lad from the other side of the pond, and there are worries to that measure. Golf is in no way the easiest game to master (more likely the hardest), and players can come crashing down much swifter than they rose up. So, there should be some precaution in saying that Fitzpatrick will have the greatest college golfing career a (Northwestern) Wildcat has ever experienced. He certainly contains the potential to produce such an outcome, but he shouldn't be given such a high marking before his time in Evanston has actually begun.

Still, it's hard not to like the kid. He appears humble and armed with a calm demeanor, he's witty (when asked about emulating Tiger Woods' game, he offered that he would prefer not to drive it where Tiger did) and he's appreciative of those around him, namely his family and the volunteers whose hands he shook one-by-one down the line after closing out the final match.

Those are keen qualities to have, but one aspect of his golf this week was particularly striking and evidence that he has a good chance to carry on his dominance to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Fitzpatrick cruised through his first six rounds of the tournament this week. His scores of 67 and 70 were well enough to place him a cool T-3 in the stroke play qualifying stage, and in his first first four matches, played over 18 holes, he downed each opponent 4&3, never reaching the 16th tee in the process. Even in the final, he posted a 4&3 victory, although it was over 36 holes rather than 18.

Thus, one might point to the Englishman's 2&1 triumph in the semifinals as his least impressive showing for the week. It was actually his most.

You see, you learn a lot more about an elite golfer on their bad days than their good ones. Give these guys a gettable course on a day when most everything in their game is clicking and they will torch that place to no end. Under these circumstances, a player of that caliber is not going to have too much trouble posting a round in the mid-60s or below. This is not to suggest it is easy to accomplish such a feat, but that golfers at the high amateur or pro level are just that good.

Where the top players among this elite bunch really separate themselves are their ability to produce respectable scores when their games are mostly out of whack. Golf tournaments, especially a match-play laden one such as the U.S. Amateur, are way too long for any player to not expect to hit a rough patch at some point. In fact, no matter how "on" a high-class golfer's game may be at a particular event, he/she will most always be saddled with at least one round where a lot of the parts aren't coming together as hoped.

Those who intend to be at the top of the sport do not wilt on these days. They do quite the opposite. They hunker down, they grind, they treasure every par they can get and they don't stop fighting to construct a good score until they pick their ball up out of the the final hole. There are too many times to count where Tiger Woods has turned a potential 76 into a 70 and has remained in contention as a consequence.

Tiger is certainly not the only golfer to accomplish such play, just the greatest example of it.

And that's what Fitzpatrick did in the Saturday semifinal match. The Brit found 5 of 17 greens on the day, an absolutely brutal total for that great a player even at a formidable track like The Country Club, yet shot the equivalent of 2-under-par for the round.

That's a good score if you miss five greens, let alone hit five greens.

So, how did he manufacture such a round? By clawing and grinding all the way through. Two-down through four holes and clearly out of sorts with his swing, Fitzpatrick chose not to give in to this stupid game. He got up-and-down from a tough lie off the fifth green to remain two adrift. He followed that by holing a 35-foot birdie effort on No. 6 to get within one and stayed that way when he downed a 20-foot par attempt on No. 7

His piece de resistance came next. Fitzpatrick was beyond the eighth green, 20 feet above the cup in some truly gnarly rough and hitting into a downward slope that USGA officials might have done well to enact a speed limit for balls that carried any sort of topspin down the steep decline.

In other words, he was dead.

Then something crazy happened. Fitzpatrick took a big swing, swiped the club perfectly under the ball, landed it five feet in front of him on the fringe, and watched as the ball rolled…and rolled…and rolled until it finally snuck into the right side of the cup for an incredible birdie three.

Two-down four holes before, he had hit exactly one green and was now All Square. That is what inner fortitude can bring to the table.

Fitzpatrick continued his battle on the back-nine: after gaining the lead, he splashed a short-sided bunker shot off a downhill lie to a foot to save par on 13, rolled in to mid-range par putts on 15 and 16  to retain his advantage and slammed the door shut by rolling in a 25-footer for birdie on 17 with authority.

All in all, Fitzpatrick still managed to win in the semifinals of a U.S. Amateur on a day when his game was nowhere near The Country Club's grounds. That's pretty heady stuff.

Fitzpatrick could stand to his improve his game still as heads off to the Chicago area this fall. He mentioned as much when explaining that Goss could prove a valuable resource to upping his performance in his self-described woeful scrambling game (well 51 weeks out of the year at least).

The tools, the promise, the attitude, they are all there for Fitzpatrick.

Asked what he will do now that he has the Havemeyer Trophy in his hands, he offered a glib response.

"I'll go home and chill out for a few days."

He may be sporting a relaxed demeanor right now, but restless eyes in Evanston are waiting to see what the boy wonder from Britain could do for this program.