BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Not many things could pry Matt Mattare away from a Notre Dame home football game against Michigan. Dating back to 2002, Mattare has never missed the Fighting Irish play the Wolverines in Notre Dame Stadium.
But the 28-year-old from Jersey City, N.J., is trading a home game for a home game.
And Mattare wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mattare will get a rare opportunity to compete in a USGA championship at his home course – Saucon Valley Country Club – when he tees it up at the 34th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship this Saturday.
It’s a championship that has been circled on Mattare’s calendar since the venerable Eastern Pennsylvania club was awarded the championship in 2010.
But it didn’t come easy. Mattare had to endure one of the toughest 18-hole rounds of his life just to qualify. He called the qualifier at Huntingdon Valley (Pa.) Country Club on July 21 one of the most stressful rounds he’s ever played.
The internal and external expectations were through the roof, said Mattare, and no matter how hard you try to block it out, you feel that burden a bit leading up to the event and certainly during it. It’s a lot to handle.
Back at Saucon Valley, Gene Mattare, the longtime general manager/director of golf, constantly refreshed his computer to watch the scores online. There was plenty of anxiety, especially after his son posted two early bogeys. A couple of birdies eased the tension – a little. Not until all the scores had been tabulated and Matt’s even-par 70 was good enough to earn one of the nine available spots did Gene exhale.
Gene was in attendance in 2012 at Conway Farms in suburban Chicago when Matt advanced to the quarterfinals in his first U.S. Mid-Amateur, coming within one more victory of being exempt into the 2014 championship. Semifinalists receive a two-year Mid-Amateur exemption.
Last year, Mattare was the stroke-play medalist at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.), but lost in the first round of match play to Davis Boland, 2 and 1.
That meant Mattare, a 2008 graduate of Notre Dame, would have to endure sectional qualifying for this year’s Mid-Amateur. Playing 18 holes among a field of 144 quality players for nine spots isn’t easy. It’s much harder when you want it more than an Irish victory over Michigan.
Once it was over, Mattare received a flood of text messages, emails and phone calls. High school friends, college buddies, family, Saucon Valley members and local media contacted him.
It certainly made carrying all that pressure of expectations worth it, said Mattare, an operations manager for Morgan Stanley. It’s a colossal relief to have cleared the hurdle of qualifying. Relief is an understatement – it’s five to 10 steps beyond that.
Now comes the next step, although it likely won’t be as tension-filled and nerve-racking as qualifying. Mattare has played Saucon Valley’s Old and Weyhill Courses – the two layouts being used for stroke-play qualifying – hundreds, if not thousands of times. His good friend and fellow Allentown Central Catholic graduate Steve Fritsch will serve as his caddie. Fritsch also caddied for Mattare at his 2012 Mid-Amateur sectional qualifier.
He has the perfect demeanor to keep me focused, said Mattare. He’s a very calming influence when things don’t go according to plan.
When Mattare moved from Manhattan to Jersey City a couple of years ago, the reduction in rent payments allowed him to join Saucon Valley. While he had played the three courses at the club many times as a youth – Gene has served the club for 23 years – Mattare only recently became a member.
Since joining, Mattare tries to play 72 holes every available weekend – 36 on Saturday and 36 on Sunday. And he’s certainly seen the course in championship condition, having competed in three major state/regional events: the 2008 and 2013 Pennsylvania State Amateur and the 2010 Golf Association of Philadelphia Amateur.
Each time, Mattare felt more comfortable in his surroundings.
This is obviously a bigger stage than those previous tournaments, but I’m looking forward to representing Saucon Valley and doing everybody proud, he said.
Defending champion Mike McCoy, who met Mattare at this year’s Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club in Lewiston, N.Y., said home-course advantage only goes so far.
It’s always hard to play when expectations are high, said McCoy. He’s a great player and I’m sure he won’t be laboring quite so hard on some of the putts. [But] I think by the time the tournament starts, everybody will have had a chance to look at [the layouts], and I think [Saucon Valley] will probably be the same for everybody.
Mattare added that he has nothing extra planned for the week, other than a few visits to his favorite hot dog spot – Yocco’s in Allentown – and finding a comfortable chair to watch the Michigan-Notre Dame game on Saturday night.
Gene said he hopes to break away from some of his championship responsibilities to watch Matt play.
It’s very exciting, he said. I’m very proud of him and I think he’s done a wonderful job, and hopefully he advances far in the championship. I know that is what he would love to do.
Mattare certainly has the experience to make a deep run, having been a quarterfinalist in 2012 and the stroke-play medalist last year. His job does prevent him from competing a lot in the summer. He took his required two-week vacation in late July to play the Porter Cup and Pennsylvania State Amateur at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, where he tied for ninth.
Those events certainly provided the kind of preparation required for the Mid-Amateur.
While both the quarterfinal loss to Garrett [in 2012] and opening-round loss to Davis [in 2013] were disappointing, I can really draw from the fact that I executed a lot of great shots, swings and putts under intense pressure with my back against the wall, said Mattare. What I can focus on and gain confidence from is the fact that I didn’t shrink from the moment and I executed shots exactly how I wanted. Hopefully next time the good putts drop and I’m on the right side of the result.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.