Mattiace oh-so-close to green jacket

Published : Apr 26, 2003 00:00 IST

"I knew one of us was going to win, one of us was going to lose. I was OK with that,'' said Len Mattiace after losing the title to Weir in playoff. — Pic. AP-
"I knew one of us was going to win, one of us was going to lose. I was OK with that,'' said Len Mattiace after losing the title to Weir in playoff. — Pic. AP-

"I knew one of us was going to win, one of us was going to lose. I was OK with that,'' said Len Mattiace after losing the title to Weir in playoff. — Pic. AP-

Len Mattiace was waiting for the playoff to start, putting between folding chairs, television cameras and a wooden podium.

The Augusta National practice green was cluttered in preparation for the green jacket ceremony. The next time Len Mattiace stood there it was as runner-up in the Masters.

He was that close — that close — to claiming golf's most prized piece of clothing.

Despite one of the best closing rounds in Masters history, Mattiace was tied with Mike Weir after 18 hole. In the playoff, Mattiace struck his worst shot of the day, winding up behind a pine tree next to the 10th green.

From there, things only got worse. He muscled up on a chip, the ball racing past the flag and winding up on the far side of the green. Then, an icy downhill putt that nearly rolled off the other side. Finally, another putt hit too hard, the ball sliding past the hole yet again.

Mercifully, he didn't have to take another shot. Weir tapped in a bogey putt to win. Mattiace broke down in tears, overwhelmed by the realisation that his best effort wasn't quite good enough.

"I love this game. I've loved it since I was 8 years old,'' he said, rubbing his eyes. "You're trying to get better and better as a golfer. You're trying to reach new levels.'' For Mattiace, this was a new level. He shot 65 in the final round of the Masters, quite an achievement for a guy who never finished higher than 24th in a major championship.

His closest brush with fame in a major tournament came in 1998, when he went to the 71st hole at The Players Championship just one stroke out of the lead.

Mattiace was overwhelmed by one of the most famous holes in golf — the island-green 17th at Sawgrass. One shot into the water, then another. When he was done, a quintuple-bogey 8, his chances of victory were at the bottom of the lake.

Mattiace managed to find some perspective when he looked over at his mother, Joyce, sitting in a wheelchair, her body ravaged by lung cancer. She died a few months later.

On that Sunday, Mattiace was asked if she was watching over him. "You're going to make me cry again,'' he replied. "Yeah, she was.'' Mattiace was playing at Augusta National for the first time since 1988, when he made his debut while still a college student at Wake Forest.

He never expected it would take 15 years to get back. "Being the college stud I thought I was, an All-American coming out of college, I thought I would zip right to the pros, win my first or second year on the tour, hang around the top 30,'' Mattiace said.

Instead, he didn't qualify for the PGA Tour until 1993, three years after graduating. He lasted only one year, dropping off until '96. He finally won his first tournament at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles last year. Finally, he qualified for his second Masters appearance.

Through the first two rounds, Mattiace wasn't much of a factor, shooting 73 and 74. He slipped in under the radar with a 69 on Saturday, but still began the final round five strokes behind third-round leader Jeff Maggert.

Then, Mattiace went out and shot the round of his life. Six birdies and an eagle on one of golf's most challenging layouts.

"This day proved to me that I can do some great stuff,'' he said. "I was in a zone. I was hitting shots just the way I was seeing them. That's all you want to do. It was a great feeling doing it.'' The feeling wore off at the treacherous 18th, a hole that bedeviled Mattiace all week. Needing just a par to equal the course record for a closing round, his body flew open on the tee shot, the ball plopping down on some wood chips to the right of the fairway.

He had to punch out and wound up making bogey. At that point, Mattiace was still the leader with a 7-under 281. While he was in the scoring hut going over his card, Weir made a birdie putt at 15 to get to 7 under, too.

Mattiace made a brief stop at Butler Cabin, where the green jacket is awarded, then headed to the practice range. The bleachers were nearly empty, the sun setting behind him, as he struck a few balls to stay loose. Then, accompanied by his caddie and coach, he headed to the practice green, already set up for the champion's ceremony.

About wedge away, the gallery roared when Weir sank a testy 6-foot putt to save par at 18, forcing the playoff. Fans scurried down the fairway to get in position, but Mattiace never looked up.

He took a few more putts before a security guard summoned him to the 10th tee.

"I was ready to go,'' he said, insisting that he wasn't hurt by the 45-minute layoff. "I knew one of us was going to win, one of us was going to lose. I was OK with that.''

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment