The terrible luck that cost Matthew Southgate his American dream
Matthew Southgate has maintained his silence these past few weeks, despite garnering widespread sympathy in the game for suffering what has been in various places described as “one of the worst breaks golf has seen” and “a classic example of golf ’s silly rules”.
Yet the reason why the Englishman held his tongue was not because he was furious with the leaf and the ruling that ultimately cost him a PGA Tour card – but because he was “embarrassed”.
On Friday, Southgate finally agreed to talk about the bizarre incident that occurred in Ohio. It would have been easy for Southgate to howl at the heavens, or even at the governing bodies, but the 29-year-old sees only one culprit – himself. And he is determined to do something about it.
Standing over a five-footer on the 15th green in the final round of the DAP Championship in Ohio, Southgate seemed certain to wrap up his playing privileges on the US Tour, otherwise known as golf ’s fantasyland. Sixth place at the Open in July had earned the Essex man the right to play in the Web.com Tour finals, from where 25 players would win golf ’s equivalent of the Willy Wonka golden ticket.
What happened next flummoxed even the most hardened of observers. Southgate hit his putt, but as it is was making its apparently inexorable progress towards the hole, a leaf blew into it and caused it to veer off line.
“I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve yet to talk to anyone else who has,” Southgate said. “The speed with which it hit the ball … it really smacked it. The ball moved a long way. I couldn’t believe it.”
Neither could the PGA Tour social media staff, who quickly posted the clip, complete with Southgate’s stunned reaction, on the various outlets above the words: “Golf is hard … especially when you’re playing for a PGA Tour card.” Yet, at that stage, only a few realised exactly how hard.
“About 30 minutes after I’d finished, I got a message telling me that a rule official had seen that video on Twitter and that because I’d tapped in and not replaced it, I was being penalised two shots and then a further two shots for signing for an incorrect score,” Southgate said. “They showed me the rule book and as soon as I saw it, I knew. It’s there in black and white. And I was just really, really embarrassed.
“It was poor from me to not know the rules of a game I’ve played since I was two. I take full responsibility. People say it’s bad luck, but it’s not bad luck because I should have replayed the shot and could have made four. But I didn’t and it became nine, and that became me missing my card. I’ve only got myself to blame. I’m not annoyed with anyone else.”
The best wishes of his peers have not assisted much either; and neither has their collective ignorance. I asked 10 different pros at the Dunhill Links if they were aware of that particular rule and all admitted they were not.
“Yeah, loads have told me that, but it’s a bit of a shock to think pro golfers know everything and they actually don’t,” Southgate said. “If you’re a pro and you’re playing for millions week in, week out, you should know all the rules inside out. If I’d known the ruling, I’d have been the talk of the town for the right reason. I’d have replaced it, hit it in for a four and everybody would have said, ‘What a great pro, what great knowledge of the rules.’ I would have had credit, instead of sympathy.
“And people also say I was unlucky because I had the cameras on me at the time. But if they weren’t, I’d have a PGA Tour card and I would have it by breaking the rules. And imagine 10 years down the line when a leaf hits someone else’s ball and I’d see it and think, ‘That’s what happened to me and I shouldn’t be here.’ How bad would that feel?” In all his self-flagellation, Southgate concedes it is a positive that the rulemakers are in the process of simplifying the weighty tome.
“When you’re a kid growing up playing golf, you learn the rules through the experiences of what happens to you on the course,” he said. “So you know how to take a drop from a hazard and all those things. But so many differ- ent things can happen out there that it makes it almost impossible to learn the rule book completely just from experience. You need to sit there and learn like you would an exam, and that will put people off. So it’s good what the R&A and USGA are trying to do.”
For Southgate, it is back to the European Tour and, at 26th in the order of merit, he still has plenty to play for in the Race to Dubai run-in. He is hardly lacking perspective, having recovered from testicular cancer two years ago, but he would be lying if he stated this had not affected him. And if one thing is certain, it is that here is an honest character.
“It’s knocked me for six as it was the chance to play the biggest tournaments in the world against the best players,” he said. “These circumstances would be heart-wrenching for anyone. It’s not like I made a 10 taking on a crazy shot. I didn’t know the rules and I should. So I will be going back to the rule book and having a good study. If I didn’t know that one, there are probably about five or six more in there that I also don’t know. It won’t happen to me again.”
Hard-luck story: Matthew Southgate watches in disbelief as a leaf hits his ball to knock it wide of the hole. His tap-in would ultimately cost him four strokes and a US Tour card