AUGUSTA, Ga. – When a two-time major champion asks you to join him for a practice round, it’s not an invitation to be turned down.
Reigning U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, of England, was quietly going about his warm-up session on Tuesday morning at Augusta National Golf Club when J.P. Fitzgerald, Rory McIlroy’s caddie, approached the 19-year-old and his caddie, Ricky Elliott, like McIlroy a Northern Ireland native.
Elliott was a last-minute substitute on Tuesday when Augusta National politely informed Fitzpatrick’s original caddie, Lorne Duncan, that he could not wear sandals. Duncan, who has a foot issue, had to relinquish his duties.
Elliott, who regularly carries for American Brooks Koepka on the PGA European Tour and caddied in the past two Masters for Ben Curtis, was available.
“Fundamentally, he looks great,” said Elliott, a native of Portrush, the same hometown as 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, of Fitzpatrick. “This was the first time I had ever been out with him. He’s very impressive. He’s going to be a good player.”
Fitzpatrick, who defeated Australian Oliver Goss, 4 and 3, in last year’s U.S. Amateur championship match at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., was humbled that the 2011 U.S. Open champion sought him out.
“I didn’t know what to say,” said Fitzpatrick, who played nine holes before going in for lunch. “I was shocked that he asked me. It was his caddie, J.P. [He asked], ‘Do you want to play with Rory?’ Yeah, definitely.”
Despite giving up as much as 30 yards off the tee, Fitzpatrick held his own with the former world No. 1 player. On the seventh and ninth holes, he stuck his approach shots to 8 and 2 feet, respectively.
“I was very impressed with his game,” said McIlroy, 25, who is competing in his sixth Masters. “He hits the ball very nice. He’s not overly long, but he’s very solid, very steady and has a very tidy short game.
“And he doesn’t seem to be in awe of the week or the venue. He seems very level-headed. I just told him to go out and enjoy it.”
Fitzpatrick, No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, certainly is accustomed to performing on a big stage. Last summer, the 2012 British Boys champion was the low amateur at the British Open at Muirfield before winning the U.S. Amateur in August. He then played in the Walker Cup Match at National Golf Links of America – his Great Britain & Ireland side lost, 17-9 – before spending one semester at Northwestern University. Fitzpatrick surprised many by leaving Northwestern in January to focus entirely on golf. He made a couple of trips to Augusta in the past three months to prepare for the Masters and also received a sponsor’s invitation to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he missed the cut. He’s also scheduled to compete in next week’s PGA Tour stop on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Fitzpatrick has not set a timetable on when he might turn professional. He is exempt into the 2014 U.S. Open, at Pinehurst No. 2, and the 2014 British Open, at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), by virtue of his U.S. Amateur victory.
Before deciding on his professional future in the summer, Fitzpatrick is focused on the Masters. His entire family made the trip to Augusta, including younger brother Alex, who caddied for him at the U.S. Amateur. “I retired undefeated,” said Alex while watching his brother from behind the par-3 sixth green. Fitzpatrick’s girlfriend, Amy, and another childhood friend are also part of his gallery.
“It’s tough,” said Fitzpatrick of the course. “You just have to play aggressive to conservative targets. I’ll play away from [certain] flags and just see how it goes.”
Goss also enjoyed a “dream” pairing on Tuesday at Augusta. Although he played the 2012 Australian Masters with childhood idol Adam Scott, traversing Augusta National with the reigning Masters champion was a memorable experience in its own right. Fellow Australians John Senden and Steven Bowditch – both PGA Tour winners – rounded out the foursome.
On Saturday, Goss played nine holes with Jason Day, another Australian who has risen to No. 4 in the Official World Golf Rankings and has three times been a runner-up in major championships, including the 2011 and 2013 U.S. Opens.
Goss, a University of Tennessee sophomore who turns 20 on Saturday, has astutely studied these professionals, from their practice routines to how they attack certain holes.
“I wanted to pick his brains a little bit, but he did it all for me,” said Goss, owner of two collegiate victories, of Day. “He gave me all the information that he had about the course. I took it right in, because it seems like he knows what he is doing around here.”
As for Scott, Goss said he was impressed how he remembered him from their pairing two years ago in Australia.
“It was amazing, just to be able to play and catch up with him again,” said Goss.
Goss made three pre-Masters trips to Augusta, which is about a five-hour drive from Knoxville, Tenn., but couldn’t play the course in February due to a major ice storm that knocked down several trees, including the famous Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole. Goss was stranded in Augusta for a week while his coach from Australia, Richie Smith, was stuck at the airport in Atlanta.
Asked what he did to pass the time, Goss replied: “Homework. I tried to do as much as I could from my hotel room.”
In March, Goss linked up with Augusta National caddie Brian Tam, the caddie who carried for 14-year-old Tianlang Guan in last year’s Masters. Guan, the youngest player in Masters history, finished as the low amateur, making the weekend cut.
“He really makes great reads,” said Goss of Tam. “He was adding a foot more of break on some putts.”
Goss is the only one of the six amateur invitees who did not win a major amateur championship to earn his spot in the field. He’s also the only Australian in the field without a PGA Tour win, a fact that one reporter jokingly brought up after his Tuesday practice round.
“Well, I haven’t played in any PGA Tour events,” said Goss, drawing laughter. “I’ve tried to get in some events, but it didn’t work out.”
Goss, like Fitzpatrick, is exempt into the U.S. Open in June at Pinehurst. From there, he doesn’t know if he’ll go back to Australia or play a full summer amateur schedule in the U.S. He’s also entertaining thoughts of turning pro.
“I’m just focused on what’s in front of me,” he said.
One thing is for sure, he’ll have plenty of support from the spectators. As he made his way around the course on Tuesday, he heard plenty of “Go Vols” chants. Goss and reigning British Amateur champion Garrick Porteous are both University of Tennessee golfers, the latter scheduled to graduate in May.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Goss. “I thought there would be a couple of Tennessee fans out here, but I probably heard ‘Go Vols’ 200 times today. It was something that I just didn’t expect.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.