It is the US Open triumph with its genesis at Augusta National. Mike Walker, the coach of Matt Fitzpatrick since the golfer’s early teens, was pacing the fairways at the Masters in 2020 when a stark realisation hit home.
“Matt was playing with Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas in the first two rounds,” Walker recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘It doesn’t matter how straight I can get you to hit a seven wood, it’s not going to beat their six irons.’ I remember them hitting shots into the 11th. Matt hit an unbelievable seven wood but the other two were just flicking seven irons. To get to where he wanted to go, he had to do something about it.”
As Walker readily concedes, there are “warning signs” when golfers try to add extra length. Fitzpatrick was already one of the world’s leading players, if not in the ultra elite group. Here was a highly rated tutor instigating a potentially dangerous switch. Yet he needed an extra level — one shown when the Yorkshireman held the US Open trophy aloft at Brookline on Sunday.
“He has worked with Matt Roberts on strength and conditioning for years,” Walker says. “Matt has made him stronger. We went to see Sasho Mackenzie [a biomechanist] on a consultancy basis, which would always be categorised as a risk but we did not change Matt’s pattern. We were just trying to speed up his existing pattern without changing his golf swing. Matt is really fast in terms of rotation but he hasn’t got much leverage. One of the areas he could have gone down, although I don’t think you’d have heard about him again, was adding more lateral movement but we decided against that. He has done it with a combination of gym training with Matt Roberts and Sasho in the background with his weights [fixed to the end of a practice stick called ‘The Stack].
“I have felt, since he took that distance on and retained his accuracy, that he can compete everywhere. Whereas before, as the coach you are always aware of the goals and what they want to achieve but I felt I had my hands tied behind my back a bit. This has made him a top-10 player who can potentially stay a top-10 player.”
Key, of course, was that Fitzpatrick, who is more analytical than most of his peers, accepted he needed to find extra yards. On Fitzpatrick’s first year as part of PGA Tour statistics, 2013, his average driving distance did not reach 280 yards. It now touches 300.
“I feel like Matt has challenged me a lot,” Walker says. “There were times where I felt like I was getting close to his full potential but he didn’t look at it that way. He was already top-30 in the world, with his size he wasn’t a really long hitter. He was always hell bent on one thing and that was getting to the top.
“We had agreed on a goal for this year of getting to the top 10 in the world. We thought that was fairly realistic. But you don’t realise that it takes some doing. One thing we did always think was that, if he was going to win a major, it would probably be the US Open. We felt it really suited his game. He obviously proved us right.”
Fitzpatrick was still in the midst of celebrations when he stated his desire to reach six major wins, matching the total of Nick Faldo. Walker knows Fitzpatrick better than anybody and knows he does not speak in jest. “He will go for more, without question,” Walker says. “He struggles to take two days off. Once the whirlwind subsides in the next few days, he will be right back at it. He just has a relentless desire to continue to improve. All this will have done is given him a shot of major adrenaline.”
Walker was on the M6 near Birmingham as Will Zalatoris’s putt slid past the 18th hole at the Country Club and Fitzpatrick’s glory was confirmed. Emotions? Just a few. “Let’s just say he made a few grown men cry. I might have been one of them.
“Mine and Matt’s relationship is more than player and coach. I don’t know whether I’m like surrogate big brother or surrogate very young father. It means more and I think all the other players I work with will understand me saying that.”
Fitzpatrick had been confident enough in his US Open position and mindset to let Walker leave the premises on day three. The champion called his coach on Saturday evening to discuss events at Tulsa last month, where Fitzpatrick passed up a strong position after 54 holes and Thomas went on to claim the USPGA Championship. The contents of that phonecall will remain confidential but, when Walker saw Fitzpatrick crack his opening tee shot down the fairway, he knew there was mental stability. “He hasn’t said this to me but I think the USPGA was a pretty bitter pill for him to swallow,” Walker adds.
If the Fitzpatrick-Walker bond is beyond dispute, the one between player and caddie is also hugely significant. Billy Foster, a popular veteran of the bag carrying world, cut an emotional figure after ending a near four-decade wait for a major win.
“Matt is scared of him – or do you call it mutual respect?” Walker says with a laugh. “Billy is a great psychologist without having ever studied it. It’s cliched but he knows when to say things at the right time, how to read situations. When you add all that experience on top of it … he is also extremely diligent, meticulous in fact. They are both football fans. Their personalities match really well.” Fitzpatrick has discovered the perfect blend.