2003: The Masters - Everything but the jacket

Augusta, Ga.

If you believed Tiger Woods was going to be the last guy standing at the end at the 67th Masters – a development seemingly on life’s inevitable list right behind death and taxes – then it only follows, logically, that you thought Len Mattiace would not be there.

Understandable. I mean, let’s be honest. Who did? The new-look Masters is billed as a bomber’s haven, and Mattiace is a singles hitter with warning-track power at best. Also, the 35-year-old hadn’t played the Masters in 15 years; Martha Burk knows the course about as well as he does.

“I was kind of the underdog, I guess,” said the unassuming Mattiace, who had just lost an untidy playoff that served painfully little justice to one of the all-time great final rounds in the rich lore of the Masters – or any major for that matter.

Mattiace began an indelible Masters Sunday five shots off the lead. He had an ambitious game plan and executed it to near perfection, with two small glitches. He made six birdies, just as he had envisioned, and also made an eagle to boot. OK, not a problem. However, he made one more bogey than the round of his wildest dreams had room to accommodate, at the 72nd hole no less, turning a record-tying, final-round 64 into a 65.

One minute, he was standing there, one arm in the coveted green coat, punching his ticket to Augusta for, oh, only the rest of his life. The next minute, more or less, the lights were dimmed, the “Closed” sign was hung and he was on the other side of those steely gates. Gone were all those wonderful evenings swapping jokes with Arnie at the Champions Dinner. Gone were the Wednesday Par-3 Contests in perpetuity. Gone was that stupid little green jacket that looks far too ordinary to be something so damned regal.

Funny how some dreams turn out.

“I was having a career day at a career place – on a Sunday,” said Mattiace.

He was. And though in the end he couldn’t pour in a putt as all of Augusta gathered around the 10th green, something was about to pour. It wasn’t champagne, and it wasn’t the rain that had been so disruptful at week’s outset. Tears poured. Whisked back up the 10th fairway and down the hill at No. 1 and promptly stationed in front of a bank of television cameras that would broadcast his reaction to defeat around the globe, Mattiace simply lost it, breaking down, sobbing.

Who says real men can’t cry?

“The playoff didn’t go my way, and that’s OK,” he said. “The last time I was here was 1988, as an amateur, and it’s been an awfully long road . . . but a great road.”

Robert Frost wishes he’d found roads this meaningful and rewarding. Who would have thought a nice guy like Len Mattiace, who had visited Augusta National as a wide-eyed amateur in 1988, would have to wait 15 years to sample 15 minutes of fame? Know this: The next time the co-workers gather around the water cooler and babble on about some spoiled golfer making a six- or seven-figure paycheck for “four days of golf,” don’t forget the lifetime of sweat and perseverance and the 3 million range balls that wove those four days like tiny bits of yarn in a hundred-yard quilt.

It wasn’t the playoff loss to Mike Weir that got to Mattiace. It was everything else that delivered him to this destination, all stirred gently like a cocktail with the unmatched beauty of those rolling hills that sit so peacefully behind the stately clubhouse. Mattiace’s tears were for the two seasons he spent in 1994-95 as a newlywed breadwinner who didn’t own a PGA Tour card, and for the night he got through the diabolical Q-School in late 1995, when he and his wife Kristen – a former kindergarten teacher who stood by his side Sunday – held each other tight and bawled like babies.

They were for the afternoon he’ll never forget at The Players Championship in 1998, where he stepped to the 17th tee one shot out of the lead on Sunday, made a good swing with a 9-iron, and ended up depositing two balls into the water, making an 8. His late mother, Joyce, ravaged with cancer at the time, watched the painful scene unfold from her wheelchair.

There were plenty of tears that day, too.

“He’s an emotional guy,” says Kristen. “That whole ‘men aren’t supposed to cry’ . . . it doesn’t apply to him. That’s emotions.”

Even casual fans remember Mattiace making the quintuple 8 at TPC’s 17th. Most forget what he did afterward. Mattiace gathered himself, walked to the treacherous 18th, one of the most demanding closing holes in golf, and made birdie. That’s right, he finished 8-3.

Sunday at Augusta, after he had yanked his approach into no-man’s land left of the 10th green en route to making double bogey in the playoff, there remained no more holes to conquer. That’s OK, he’d say. With a revamped golf swing, a sound putting stroke and renewed confidence, Mattiace has found the elusive “it” for which so many other golfers are hunting. A year ago, he broke an 0-for-220 streak on the PGA Tour by winning not once, but twice, prevailing at Riviera and in Memphis.

Some guys may be standing still or fading at 35, but the way Mattiace sees it, he’s just getting

started. A late bloomer at Augusta, succeeding in a place known for its bloom.

“Some guys peak early,” said Mattiace, “and some guys peak late. Some guys, like Tiger, peak all the time.”

Asked if he dreams about days like Sunday at Augusta National, Mattiace isn’t afraid to tell you yes, he does. Frequently.

“You can dream about anything you want,” he said, “and I dream about this all the time.

“Why not? Why not?”

And if the emotion of the endeavor moves the man to tears, then let him cry. Pass the tissue and let him fill a small bucket. He’s real. Nice to know he cares so much about what he does.

Sunday at Augusta, the back-nine echoes, the thick of the hunt at the Masters. Stuff he has been chasing since he was 8.

It was the Sunday of Len Mattiace’s life.

As memories go, there is no jacket required.

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