Matt Wallace is one of the most exciting young golfers in the world and has set his sights on stardom, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
Wallace certainly looked the part, sitting with a beer next to the pool after a breakthrough year in which he played 31 tournaments worldwide, won in India, Germany and Denmark, and improved 83 places up the World Rankings to a career-high of 44.
He spent a relaxing Christmas in Cape Town, soaking up the sun in Camps Bay and enjoying the country to its fullest.
‘I played the Alfred Dunhill at Leopard Creek in my last event of 2018 and Brandon Stone put us up at Leopard Creek after that. Then we went to Hermanus for three days, spent three nights in Stellenbosch and now we’re in Cape Town for six days. I keep telling my girlfriend, “If this is the kind of lifestyle that working hard at golf can provide us, then bring it on!”’
Wallace, it has to be said, is one of the now-generation of world-class golfers. He’s got an active social-media profile, is still in his twenties (28), has learned how to win on the European Tour after serving his apprenticeship on the Challenge and Alps Tours – winning six times on the latter – and understands he’s a living billboard.
‘I don’t know if it’s a thing with us millennial players, but it drives me to want to talk to the media,’ he says. ‘Unless one is the likes of Tiger or Rory, who are always sought by the media no matter what they shoot, if the media want to talk to you, it’s a good thing; you must be doing something right. But the social media side of stuff has really taken off. That’s where the world is at the moment in terms of social media and responsibilities towards fans and media.
‘I always want to be top of the leaderboard, because I know then that the media will want to talk to me. At the SA Open I shot six-under and Louis shot nine-under and I was scared I wouldn’t be called by the media, but luckily they did want to chat.’
Wallace is at the forefront of a wave of English golfers coming through the ranks. By the end of 2018 there were eight English players in the world’s top 50 and 13 in the top 100. (By contrast, golf-loving South Africa had two in the top 50 and six in the top 100.)
‘I have always thought, “How can England produce so many good players?” I think there were 11 winners just from England collecting 14 tournaments among them. But it’s the European Tour that hardens you. There are so many quality players from different countries, and I have always had a mentality of working harder than anyone else. You don’t see that diversity on the PGA Tour.’
A full 15 years had passed since Wallace was last in Cape Town, having come over to South Africa on a school rugby trip in 2003. ‘I was massively into rugby as a kid; a fullback when I was very young and then a flyhalf when I got a bit older.
‘I remember when we came to South African we visited and played a number of township schools. Being a flyhalf who kicked a lot I discovered that the school kids at that age played barefoot, and I wasn’t used to that. I had to put tape round my feet because I did loads of kicking. We played teams in Cape Town, then along the Garden Route, Port Elizabeth, Durban and ended in Joburg. And rugby was what I was interested in.
‘I was the No 10 playmaker and captain when I was older. I think I was a good team member, but I was vocal. It’s good to get “up” for a game, although I might have rubbed a few people up the wrong way by shouting at them to get them switched on. As a flyhalf I was tactical and had quick centres and wings. But my dad always said I had horrendous hamstrings because I was never fast myself.’
In his pool shorts and casual shirt, Wallace is a world away from the competitive environment that is his ‘office’: the gym and the golf course. He’s an engaging man with a voracious appetite for all sport, coming from a family where his mom and dad are physical education teachers. ‘It really is a sporty family: my mum was good at hockey and my sister had netball trials for England. My family joke that I’m the least successful person in the Wallace family, but I’m determined to leave them in no doubt. As a footballer I played left back and then moved into centre back. I had a good touch and pass, but no pace.’
Wallace follows football closely and he supports Manchester United. ‘My dad is from Manchester, and I tried to support Chelsea as a kid, but he wouldn’t let me, so I’ve been a Manc all my life.’
We were talking in the week that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho as manager. ‘I think it’s a good thing for us … Solskjaer didn’t have a great team when relegated at Cardiff. With United under Jose I found myself getting annoyed too much; sometimes I’d switch the TV off and can’t stand how we’ve played. But, the next four games were easy and it couldn’t be more perfect for Ole to come in and let the players express themselves.’
History will show that United beat Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Newcastle, netting 14 times and conceding just three goals in a bright new dawn.
In terms of his golfing career, the only way is up, especially after a 2018 that made him one of the most ‘marked’ men in the game and earned him his first invitation to tee up at The Masters in April. For him, it’s another thing to tick off the bucketlist.
At the Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player CC course, three-time winner Lee Westwood remarked how similar Sun City was to Augusta, with its tricky greens and swirling winds. However, for Wallace, his first experience wasn’t positively memorable. ‘To be honest, I never thought I’d do well at Sun City in 2018. The year before I finished mid-30s, and couldn’t get used to the kikuyu grass. Then I had a few chats and found that you’ve got to clip it more, the ball is sitting up, you can sweep it off the grass. I then improved to tie-fifth last November and felt like I adapted a lot quicker than I anticipated.
‘I spoke to Lee after the third round and he said, “You’ll like it round here.” He said that when you’ve played here long enough you know where to play and where to miss it. You play safe. It’s a lot like Augusta. A lot of winners hit it quite flat so the bad shots won’t be that bad. I played at Sun City with Nicolas Colsaerts and he hits it longer than I do. On the par-three 16th I hit 8-iron short of the ridge and he hit 8-iron and it sailed over the back, 60 yards over. It had nothing to do with him, but he got caught with a gust. But Augusta should suit me. I need to drive well, work hard on chipping and putting and stay patient.’
The key for Wallace, as it is for every player at whatever level of the sport they contest, is putting.
‘It’s a massive weakness in your game if you can’t putt. Whenever Lee’s putting stats are No 1, he’ll win every week. With Sergio Garcia, if he putts the best he will win because his driving and iron play are so good. I’ve got this theory … that whoever putts best on the Sunday will win if they are in contention. I did at the Made in Denmark, I putted the best in the field. You need to roll in the 10-footers, especially on the back nine. That was Tiger’s key to success – he was the best putter.’
Being 28, Wallace is part of the generation who pays increasing attention to statistics and screen analysis. ‘Some people don’t agree with me, but there are new stats coming out; they’re pressure-based. I don’t know the details but they rank performance based on the pressure faced with a specific putt. If you’ve got a five-footer on the last to win, there’s far more pressure than a five-footer to finish off a tournament.’
And, while on the subject of putting, how does Wallace rate his own?
‘I had a big putt at the Indian Open, on the 16th hole, for bogey. It was eight foot up the hill after I’d hit it left into the bunker, back-padded my shot in the bunker and then come out to eight foot uphill – and made it. I like the pressure of putting.’
That shot was critical as Wallace went on to tie with ‘Beef’ Johnson before winning the playoff.
Wallace uses the ‘two-thumb’ grip, sometimes going to overlap, although all his wins have come when he’s been interlocked. He also has an amusing tale of when he won in India. ‘The Ping guys weren’t there and I took a grip I always had in my bag and went to the Callaway guys because I wanted to cut my putter down. They had a wire cutter and cut my putter down an inch, from 34 to 33. I put the grip on and I won by putting great!’
In terms of his warm-up routine he always starts on the practice green. ‘The first shot of any round is always the tee shot so I always finish warming up with a tee shot. I tend to start on the putting green, do a couple of drills, 20 minutes or so. Then I go to the range for 25-30 minutes. I always use a camera and video my swings. I’m a visual guy and like to see how I’m swinging and then, when I play well, I can look back and see what I’m doing right. I didn’t swing very well for a long time, so basically one sees the bad shots from bad swings. It stands to reason that the better the swing, the better one will hit shots. It’s not purely down to feel. Nowadays, the technology is there, so if you swing well it will go straight.’
In his meteoric rise up the rankings and into the forefront of the golfing consciousness, Wallace was widely considered unlucky to be omitted from Europe’s Ryder Cup team, which went on to beat the United States 17½-10½ at Le Golf National in France. However, it will be hard for Padraig Harrington to leave him off the squad at the next one in two years’ time at Whistling Straits, given the strides the English pro is making. Like many, he has his views on courses that are being produced at the tournament on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
‘I wouldn’t want the Ryder Cup to become this home-and-away type of thing. Yes, play to hosts’ advantages but boring, bombers’ courses in the US and tight, hard courses in Europe mean you won’t be picking players who are best. You’re going to pick players for courses. You want the best players in the world playing Ryder Cup and to slog it out on mutually beneficial golf courses.’
It’s time to say our goodbyes, but not before Wallace expands on what lies ahead. ‘My career has just started and every day it’s slowly starting to sink in what I’ve done; it’s mental, and to match that in 2019 I need to win at least three times. It’s crazy the standards I want to do. I want to keep getting better.
‘I don’t play for second or third. I could have done that at the SA Open when Louis was ahead by three going into the final round, but it’s not in my nature. I had a chat with my coach and he said, “Mate, go out there and try to win.” I couldn’t hole a putt, missed eagle on 15, birdied 16, went for it on 17 and made bogey, and that cost me a top 10.’ Wallace finished tie-15th after that closing 74.
‘I came off the course fuming. I walked past my girlfriend, signed the card and went home. I didn’t leave the hotel. [Former England Rugby World Cup winner] Matt Dawson sent me a message saying, “You have 24 hours to be angry or 24 hours to celebrate.” The next morning I told myself, “OK, here we go again … it will happen down the line. I’ll learn from this, I’ll lose more tournaments. But I’m always going to try every single shot. I want to win.”’
The world has been warned.
– This article first appeared in the February issue of Compleat Golfer