Nick Bonfield speaks to Matt Wallace to find out why lockdown was a good thing and where his impressive self-belief comes from
Matt Wallace Exclusive – “I Have No Doubt I Can Win A Major”
Matt Wallace has never been short of belief, but even someone who’s as self-assured as the Englishman isn’t immune to dips in form and frustrating spells where hard work doesn’t yield the desired results. Wallace freely admits the lockdown came at a good time, and now he’s out the other side, he’s firmly focused on adding to his four European Tour titles and competing with the game’s very best players on the PGA Tour.
“My game wasn’t where I wanted it to be before the lockdown,” says Wallace. “The break couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I was working hard but I just couldn’t see any improvements. I wasn’t hitting it how I wanted to and I wasn’t playing how I wanted to, so I needed that time off to understand what I wanted to do with my game, and I’ve gone after it.”
The lockdown didn’t just provide an opportunity to work on the physical side of the game – it allowed Wallace to reflect philosophically on the nature of top-tier professional golf and what’s required to enjoy success at the highest level.
“On the golf course, it’s all about scoring. I’ve figured that out a little bit better since lockdown. I’ve been guilty of trying to be too perfect and shoot six- and seven-unders all the time by playing perfect golf. It’s just not about that out here.
“At last year’s British Masters, it was the first week I started working with Dr Steve McGregor. I remember him saying ‘it’s not about this week, it’s about one, two, three years down the line’. I had that mindset all week until the final nine holes on Sunday, when I went back to trying to win the tournament, rather than thinking about the bigger picture. I tightened up a little bit and didn’t play the way I wanted to. I had a chance on the last and it just didn’t fall my way.
“That gave me an insight into how my mind should work. I just have to play my game and that will be enough sometimes, and sometimes it won’t, but that’s okay.”
On Harrington’s radar
His third-place finish at the 2019 British Masters was one of five top-threes last year – a good, but not great, return for a player who’s developed a happy knack of winning golf tournaments over the last few seasons. Wallace won five times in a row and six times total on the Alps Tour in 2016, before a victory at the co-sanctioned Portugal Open the following year earned him full European Tour status for the next season.
His 2018 sprung into life with a play-off victory over Andrew Johnston in March’s Hero Indian Open, before another triumph in June at the BMW International Open. At this point, his bid for a wildcard pick in Thomas Bjorn’s Ryder Cup team was picking up momentum.
His campaign built to a crescendo at the Made in Denmark – the last event before Bjorn made his selections – when the Dane watched Wallace birdie five of the final six holes to enter a four-man play-off and then go birdie-birdie to oust his peers.
It was quite a statement, but Bjorn opted for experience three days later when he picked Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter for the contest at Le Golf National.
“I wouldn’t say it knocked me,” says Wallace of Bjorn’s decision. “It didn’t even surprise me, but I was really disappointed. I was more upset with myself and the fact I could have done more.”
There’s no doubt the Ryder Cup’s postponement until 2021 has benefited Wallace. He admits he “wasn’t in the running at all” after an inauspicious run in the latter half of 2019 and early 2020 – a spell he describes as his “first real setback”. He returned to form with a fourth-place finish in the Memorial at a testing Muirfield Village, but even before that, he was very much in Padraig Harrington’s thoughts.
“I got a phone call from Paddy when I was at the Travelers and he told me not to believe the Ryder Cup had been cancelled unless I heard it from him,” he says. “I remember messaging him after that and saying ‘you don’t know how much that phone call means to me’. I wasn’t in the running and I appreciated that he still had me in mind. That’s given me confidence.
“I’m hoping that if Padraig needs to use me as a wildcard pick, he knows what he’s going to get. He’s going to get that passion. And he knows he can boost my confidence by saying a few things. If I can try and knock off a win before the end of the year – even though it doesn’t count in the standings – hopefully it’ll stand me in good stead come next year.”
Wallace also believes the fact he’s been playing regularly on the PGA Tour will ultimately help when it comes to any decision about his Ryder Cup credentials. Four years ago, he was playing on the Alps Tour – European golf’s equivalent of League 1 in the football pyramid. Now, he’s a regular on one of the most lucrative and prestigious tours in world sport.
“It’s important to play against the top Americans and the best in the world week in, week out – you know the competition and you know you can potentially beat them. Now I’ve been on the PGA Tour for a while, if I play in the Ryder Cup next year, I’m ready to go. I play against these guys all the time and I’ve beaten them,” he says.
“That’s something I couldn’t have said in 2018 and it probably went against me. I use that as fire. I will make the team at some point.”
Proving he belongs
There’s no doubt Harrington was watching closely when Wallace produced his best finish in a Major Championship to date in last year’s USPGA at the fearsome Bethpage Black. Had it not been for Brooks Koepka’s brilliance in the midst of a stirring Major run, Wallace would have been right in the thick of contention on Sunday afternoon. Still, a third-place finish announced him on the world stage – a significant occurrence on both an internal and external level.
“I needed that week. I try not to look at the social media stuff and the reasons why I didn’t make the Ryder Cup and the reasons why people don’t back me, but I hadn’t done anything in a huge tournament until then.
“I came 19th the year before at the USPGA and at the time that was a great result. I don’t feel like I played amazing at Bethpage, but that course just set up really well for me. It was a grinder’s course and that’s what you need to do at all Majors – grind it out. I think that suits me. I was really happy with that performance.
“Majors aren’t like regular events in the sense you have to make loads of birdies. Bogey and double-bogey avoidance is key and you just have to pick off your birdies when you can. I’ve learned so much in the last few months and I’m excited for the hard tournaments. But I know I can still make a lot of birdies on the easier courses.”
Making birdies has never been an issue for Wallace – you don’t win ten tournaments as a professional without the ability to get on a hot streak. That said, the statistics – something Wallace and his team monitor diligently – point to areas that can be improved.
In today’s professional game, standing still equates to moving backwards and resting on your laurels is a one-way ticket to mediocrity. Wallace has no intention of doing either, and he’s very aware of what he needs to do to establish himself as a permanent fixture at the top table.
“I’ve settled on a formula that works for me – drive the ball well and putt well. I know my short game is really good statistically, but I need to improve from 150-200 yards. I don’t set goals of ‘I need to win this, I need to do that’ – I identify areas I need to improve and attack those things,” he says.
One of those areas related to his attitude and on-course behaviour. Wallace is a fiery, passionate competitor, and while those attributes can be positive if harnessed the right way, they’ve been known to spill over.
In last year’s BMW International Open, Wallace appeared to berate caddie Dave McNeilly after finding the water twice on the 72nd hole. Six weeks earlier, he received criticism for slamming his putter into Hillside’s 18th green at the British Masters, an act he described as “petulant”.
To his credit, he pledged to make strides and he appears to have done so – perhaps a product of his philosophical shift. Wallace and McNeilly split in August last year but have recently rekindled their relationship, an action that suggests growth in itself.
“I asked him what his movements were post-lockdown and he asked why. I said I’d like to give it another go and he asked me if he could think about it. A couple of weeks later, he came back and said he was on board,” he says.
“I was really happy about that. He told me he wants to caddie for someone who can win a Major, and that gives me a boost. I’ve learned from the time before. Being so on it and intense and trying to be perfect all the time just isn’t sustainable. Dave has his flaws, I have my flaws, and if we know and accept that we can move on and be good at what we’re really good at.
“It’s massive for me to have him back on the bag. We had one go, we’ve learned from that and now we’re moving forward. I really want to win a Major for Dave before he signs off somewhere down the line.”
Majors in sight
Given Wallace’s impressive career progression over the last few years, such a lofty goal now seems comfortably within the realms of possibility. It’s been quite a rise for a player who was 1,154th on the Official World Golf Ranking in February 2016 – “a nobody” in Wallace’s own words.
But he’s proved he belongs at each level: six wins on the Alps Tour, four on the European Tour and passage into the world’s top 50. The last steps that remain are winning in America, winning a Major and earning a place on the Ryder Cup team – though accomplishing the former will likely take care of the latter.
At the top level, it’s often the mind that bridges the gap between potential and success. Does pressure bring out your best or make you crumble? You could argue Wallace already answered that question at the 2018 Made In Denmark, but careers are defined by performances in Major Championships. Fortunately, he has all the tools needed to succeed.
“I think I’ve come full circle. I think I’m playing better golf than I ever have now because of everything that’s come before,” he says. “I know in my head and my heart that I have the passion, the drive and the fire to win. I have the determination and desire. I’m not going to shy away from anything.
“In five years, I want to have won a Major. There’s no doubt in my mind that I have the ability. I did have doubts a couple of years ago, but the fact I came third at the USPGA gives me confidence because I’ve seen it and done it, whereas before I couldn’t and I hadn’t. I’ve played against all the top guys and they’re incredible, but I can seriously do this. I can win a Major.”
It would take a brave man to bet against Wallace in the heat of battle. He’s a born winner and possesses an innate confidence in his own ability; the all-important elixir that explains why some wilt and some thrive in golf’s biggest events. Wallace has only played in ten Major Championships, missing five cuts, but he’s seen enough to know he’s capable of much more.
The four golfers with the most Major appearances without winning since 2002 are all English – Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter. Wallace doesn’t intend to have his name on a similar list come 2030.
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