Len Mattiace’s attempt at winning the 2003 Masters ended in a playoff on the downhill 10th, a ski slope of a hole. His chances of 2004 Masters glory probably were hurt on a ski slope, period.
Both experiences led to tears.
The latter was more painful, certainly physically. A freak skiing injury Dec. 9 in Vail, Colo., led to surgery on both legs six days later.
Mattiace suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in both knees and a dislocated right kneecap. He spent long January days fretting about his future and strengthening his knees with some “brutal” exercises. He relearned to walk in February. And in March he rehabilitated his golf game, improving steadily but still wondering what April would bring.
Mattiace’s good news is that an intense regimen put him at least a month ahead of schedule. His surgeon, renowned knee specialist Dr. Richard Steadman, originally told Mattiace he’d be unable to compete again until mid- or late April at the earliest. He didn’t need a PGA Tour schedule to know that would mean missing the Florida Swing in his home state and his beloved Masters.
“Very down,” Mattiace described his mood then. “The first three weeks were such a down period. My knees were in lock braces and I thought I would not be able to play. It was an emotional time. I had to live with this injury every hour of every day during rehab and had all kinds of thoughts, like, ‘How soon will I get better?’ and ‘Will I ever play great golf?’ ”
He perked up, though, when Steadman told him he was “healed, not injured” a couple of days after late-January arthroscopic surgery cleaned up scar tissue. “A big moment for me,” Mattiace called it. The doctor also told him he couldn’t reinjure the knees playing golf.
So he started putting Feb. 10, began chipping three days later, graduated to irons in late February, pulled out a driver March 1 and that week walked nine holes daily. His first 18-hole round since Dec. 8 came when he arrived at the March 11-14 Honda Classic. Never mind that he shot 79-78 while about 85 percent healthy and found walking his most difficult task. Or that he would miss the cut by a shot (74-71) at the Bay Hill Invitational despite hitting 85.7 percent of fairways. He was back on Tour tracks, playing the last three Florida tournaments on the way back to Augusta National.
“I think physically I’ll be all right, even though it’s a very tiring course to walk,” Mattiace said of Augusta. “I’m just so excited to get back there. My biggest challenge will be to not get caught up in last year.”
His longest break from golf, three months, brought much introspection. And any initial dark thoughts were eventually lined by silver. Because he rehabbed mainly in his Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., home, he was able to enjoy additional time with wife, Kristen, and daughters Gracee, 6, and Noelle, 3. Workouts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. made him stronger and kept his mind busy. He gave his short game an inordinate amount of attention. And he realized how lucky he was as a Tour veteran with two victories and more than $6 million in earnings.
“I looked at myself and said, ‘I really love the game of golf and I’m a very fortunate guy to accomplish what I have,’ ” Mattiace said.
He wasn’t feeling fortunate Dec. 9. That was supposed to be the first day of a two-day ski trip to Vail with five male friends. Two days in Colorado turned into 14 because of the injury and the subsequent “healing response” procedure Steadman invented about 15 years ago. The doctor poked the joints, and blood and bone marrow oozed over the ACLs, fostering healing, Mattiace said.
He had gone on ski trips with his family to various resorts the previous four years. This was his first with the guys and, as a self-professed “8-handicap skier,” he was moving up from the green slopes to the more difficult blue. In Vail, that meant a drop of almost 4,000 feet from top to bottom. “There’s an ego thing there,” he said of the blues.
Before her husband left home, Kristen, thinking injury, kiddingly had told him, “When you come back here, don’t you make me take care of you. I already have two kids to take care of.”
It follows that when Mattiace fell and realized he was hurt, “that’s the first thing I thought of.”
He was skiing on powder for the first time. Because the snow was 2 feet, he couldn’t see his rental skis or the humps and bumps. As it happened, he hit a covered ridge and tumbled about 30 yards, his skis still attached. He got up and thought he was all right because he could ski straight and turn left. But when he veered right, his knees buckled.
“That’s when I realized it was bad, that I was injured,” he said. “My knees were like spaghetti.”
Medical personnel wrapped him in three blankets “like a baby,” put him on a stretcher and took him to Vail Valley Medical Center. Then he placed the dreaded call home.
Kristen wasn’t biting. Mattiace is something of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. He had tried to fool her with such things a few times before, sometimes feigning injury by limping in after golf or skiing. She was so used to his pranks that when the phone rang that night, she told some visiting girlfriends, “Get ready for this one. Lenny’s going to tell me he’s hurt.”
Len: “Honey, I had a fall and I’m not kidding.”
Kristen: “Oh, yeah. How stupid do you think I am? You’re not going to get me this time.”
Len: “I’m serious.”
Kristen, laughing: “Oh yeah.”
Len, voice changing: “I wish I was kidding.”
The Mattiaces have a “secret code thing” they use in serious cases. When he says it, she knows he’s telling the truth. And this time he said it, to her shock.
The next morning, Steadman told him he wouldn’t compete again for four or five months.
“That’s when it hit me, that it’d probably be May before I’d get back,” Mattiace said.
“That was pretty devastating. That’s when the seriousness set in. And now Kristen would have three kids to take care of.”
Mattiace was “embarrassed” because of the injury, partly because he had caused extra work for his wife. Kristen felt bad because of her pre-trip warning. Their girls felt bad because their dad had “boo-boo knees” and “walked like a monster or robot.”
Perhaps his most emotional moment came three days after surgery when he received a telephone call from Jim McLean, his coach and close friend of 10 years. Mattiace was standing on crutches in the hospital when he heard McLean’s voice. He choked up and tears fell. He couldn’t talk, so he handed the phone to Kristen.
Now that he’s playing again, the 36-year-old can more easily make light of his winter away from golf. Referring to the video he has of both surgeries, he cracked to a reporter, “Come on over to the house and let’s have some popcorn and watch it.” Problem is, Mattiace has tried to watch but quits after a minute or two. “I get queasy,” he says.
Same can’t be said for the couple of times he has viewed tape of the 2003 Masters final round. Though he finished second – losing the first sudden-death playoff hole to Weir’s bogey 5 after hooking a 6-iron off a hanging lie into trouble – Mattiace calls his first Masters as a professional “very special.”
Sunday made it so. He had one of the best final rounds in Masters history, a 65, to finish at 7-under 281. Ranked 57th in the world at the time, he had never finished better than 24th in six previous majors. And entering the last day he says he wasn’t focused on much more than fifth place.
But, playing several groups ahead of Weir, he seized temporary control with a spectacular short game and clutch ball striking. Mattiace chipped in for birdie at 8, made a 60-footer at 10 and went one up on Weir with a 15-foot eagle at 13 after a 4-wood approach. He moved two ahead after making 2- and 8-foot birdie putts at 15 and 16, respectively. Finally he salvaged bogey at 18 on a 6-footer after driving into trees right.
“It was one of those days where everything goes right and I took advantage of it,” said Mattiace, who was surprised to learn he was leading when he checked the leaderboard for the first time upon walking off the 18th tee. “That’s the most special I’ve ever felt playing the game because of the people and tradition. Looking back, I’m now part of it. I was hitting those shots. That’s a great feeling.”
Shortly after he walked out of the scoring hut, Mattiace ran into his older brother, Bob, who had watched all four rounds. They high-fived and hugged. And then Mattiace broke into tears for the first of several times.
“He’s extremely sensitive and is not afraid to show it,” Kristen said of her husband. “We were at a wedding this year, holding hands while a romantic song played, and he started to cry. It’s a nice thing for me. He shows his emotions and that appeals to the public. We’ve gotten a lot of response from people saying they appreciate someone not afraid to show emotion.”
He cried, too, after the playoff defeat, “not because of the loss, but because I reached a high level at such a special place. It was the whole week pouring out.”
Mattiace would receive more than 1,000 letters over the next three months. Some, he said, were from fans in Weir’s native Canada who said they had been pulling for Mattiace. “That was amazing,” the runner-up said.
Byron Nelson wrote. Mattiace framed a “great letter” from Greg Norman. About a week after the tournament the native New Yorker received a telephone call from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Mattiace said he felt “ready to run a marathon” after their uplifting 10-minute chat. And then, at a Wake Forest fund-raiser a few days later, he received kind words followed by, “You should have finished it off,” from fellow alumnus Arnold Palmer.
“I know,” Mattiace replied.
He made a congratulatory call of his own the week after. And once more the prankster came out.
“How are you doing?” Mattiace said when a voice answered the phone.
“Who is this?” the man asked.
Mattiace kidded around a little longer before identifying himself and congratulating Mike Weir.
A year later, golf’s best players are set to gather again among Augusta’s azaleas and dogwoods and rolling hills. Mattiace didn’t prepare for the year’s first major championship in preferred fashion the past four months. The crutches and leg braces tell us so. But considering the depths from which he has risen, he’s just glad to be back.
He’ll make another interesting return later this year. To the ski slopes. With his family. To the green slopes, though, not blue.
“It’s like walking,” Mattiace said. “You can’t get in trouble on them.”