Exclusive interview: The Englishman, who has become one of Europe’s most reliable performers on the PGA Tour, is motivated to leave his mark on the tournament after a disappointing outing in 2016
“I think the big thing if I look back on it is, genuinely, I probably wasn’t ready to play,” Matt Fitzpatrick says of his baptism of fire at the Ryder Cup in 2016. Back then, the Englishman was just 22 years old, the baby-faced breakout star of the European Tour with America beckoning at his feet. A rookie appearance had been a castaway of the imagination achieved at an improbable pace, but the reality hardly lived up to those fantasies, and much of the week was spent idling on the peripheries, with his contribution restrained to two losing appearances that left his dreams roundly unfulfilled.
The circumstances at Whistling Straits this week, though, are drastically different and Fitzpatrick admits it “feels kind of ridiculous” to think it has now been eight years since he turned professional. An ever-present fixture in the world’s top-50 since being somewhat awestruck at his first Ryder Cup experience, there was no scar tissue left by Europe’s chastening defeat. Instead, if there was ever a moment that forced a reckoning in his thriving career, it came in 2018. “Missing out on the team then became a big motivation for me,” he says. “I made some changes, how I practised, my coaching and it made a big difference. I’ve matured and I’m a better player now.”
Seemingly a certainty for automatic qualification for much of the last two years, the revolving scenarios at Wentworth, where players slipped in-and-out of safety with the volatility of a roulette wheel, brought unwelcome risk. “I was thinking about it a lot going into the last few tournaments,” Fitzpatrick admits. “I knew I had to go out and play well to make sure it was in my own hands. It was definitely a relief because it means so much for me to be part of the team and thinking about not being on it was tough. Now I want to make sure I do everything I can and win. After playing 2016 and not getting any points, you want to compete and this time it’s definitely different.”
An avid – and more recently beleaguered – Sheffield United fan, Fitzpatrick relishes the team aspect of the event. He has grown close to players in the European dressing room and knows he’s viewed with a “different perspective” than the shier version of himself who was encouraged to soak everything in. And on a behemoth Straits course suited to a “very strong” American team, he believes that much-vaunted but undeniably valuable sense of spirit will be one of Europe’s key advantages.
“Even if Padraig said to me: ‘Listen, you’re not playing all four games, you’re just playing in the singles,’ I’d obviously be gutted, but I’d still want to be part of it. I’ll do anything to help benefit this team,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. You see that in everyone, how united they are, and that’s so important during the week. I’m a massive football fan and it’s as close as you get to that feeling of playing. You win together and you lose together. It might sound cliche but that’s really what it is.”
That attitude has been ingrained since a young age, long before Fitzpatrick revealed himself as one of Britain’s brightest talents with victory at the Boys Amateur Championship. He still holds onto faint glimpses of watching the 2006 Ryder Cup when Europe stormed to victory at the K Club, the suspense and excitable footsteps as he raced home from school to see Graeme McDowell’s winning putt on Monday at Celtic Manor, but, above all, it’s the Miracle at Medinah that still stirs in his memory. “That stuck with me for a long, long time,” he says. “You want to be a part of something like that yourself. It was different class.”
If Team Europe are to be successful this week, it will require no smaller feats of greatness. Fitzpatrick knows it will be a momentous task against such a formidable US team, but history is rarely made easily. It’s not about redemption but, perhaps, a little about proving a point. If Fitzpatrick wasn’t ready then, he’s raring to go now. “It will be hard this one, especially with how the course is supposedly set up,” he says. “I know it’s stating the b***** obviously but honestly we’re just going to have to play really well. I’m just looking forward to it more than anything. It’s excitement rather than nerves. I’m more experienced now and I’m going to do everything I can to help the team win points.”