Matt Wallace is back in the winner’s circle and has one eye on the Ryder Cup after several years in the wilderness.
It might not make the second season of Full Swing, but Matt Wallace’s breakthrough victory at the Corales Puntacana Championship deserved far greater acclaim than being given second billing behind the WGC-Match Play. Given all that had gone before, it felt especially seismic.
The win, Wallace’s first on the PGA Tour in 80 starts, had a little bit of everything. Drama. Perseverance. A spat with his caddie the week before. There was even an outpouring of emotion in his winner’s speech, built up over nearly five years of frustration and heartache.
“I didn’t know it was my 80th (start); it feels like I’ve been out here for years,” he revealed to a smattering of journalists afterwards. “I’m getting grey hairs now with all the stress I’ve been putting myself under in golf.
“It’s been really hard and there have been tough times because I just couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t performing even though I was putting in the work. It wasn’t happening. It’s because that was so hard that it feels as amazing as it does now.”
The victory also gained Wallace a spot in the field for the 2023 US PGA Championship – the tournament where he finished third in 2019 amid a much-talked-about meteoric rise that saw him reach the world’s top 25 for the first time.
Less has been said about the fall, which drained him of confidence and left him feeling lost. Both personally and professionally. Wallace didn’t want to talk about it, so he didn’t.
Now Wallace is in a better headspace and is happy to tell his story. The first part shows how far he has come. By today’s standards, Wallace was something of a late bloomer. He didn’t turn pro until he was 21 and yet he was ready to give it all up 12 months later. He had his CV typed out and even applied to work for ISM, the same sports agency that now manages him.
A couple of friends eventually convinced him to stick at it and he was rewarded by winning six times – including five in a row – on the Alps Tour in 2016. Promotion to the Challenge Tour followed, but he didn’t stay there long.
After winning the co-sanctioned Portugal Open in May 2017, he secured his DP World Tour card for the following season and the proverbial floodgates opened. He won three times in six months, including the last event in Europe before the teams were finalized for the 2018 Ryder Cup. He made a compelling case for a pick and thought he had a good chance. “I was mentally preparing myself to be in that team,” he admits now, stroking his chin.
Thomas Bjorn had other ideas. He opted for experience, picking Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Sergio Garcia ahead of him. The snub hurt and by his own admission, it took several months to get over. Others would suggest it has taken years.
He wasn’t even part of the conversation for the last Ryder Cup and has found it tough going, balancing playing commitments on the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. Between January and August every year, he relocates from London to Florida to cut down on travel times and take advantage of the better weather and the facilities at Medalist Golf Club.
It was supposed to make things easier, but being away from friends and family for such a long period of time means it hasn’t always worked out that way. This time last year he would often spend hours on the range before and after rounds, searching for something, anything, to make him feel better and turn his fortunes around.
“At the Players last year, that was probably the lowest I’ve been for sure, on and off the course,” Wallace admits. “I was grinding still, working my nuts off, but I didn’t want to be there. I just didn’t enjoy it.
“Life away from golf isn’t always easy and then on the course I was probably working on the wrong things at the wrong times and going down rabbit holes trying to improve.”
He neglects to go into too much detail out of respect for former coaches, though much of his difficulties can be traced back to getting fitted for a new set of clubs when his game was at his worst. He then spent the rest of last season testing and trying new balls and drivers when his time could have been put to better use.
“I got it into my head that my equipment wasn’t helping me, but I got fitted for how I was playing then, rather than how I should have been playing. I was trying to bandage what was going on and I wasn’t getting any better because I wasn’t doing the right things.
“My coach was trying to give me input as well, but I didn’t feel like I could trust it. Basically, I was playing the blame game. I look back on it now and realize I was going about things in the wrong way.”
The road back hasn’t been easy.
Despite rejecting overtures from LIV Golf, Wallace didn’t qualify for any of the four Major championships last season and should have lost his PGA Tour card after finishing outside the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings. It was only because six players defected to LIV that he was granted a reprieve and bumped up the order, alongside Danny Willett.
“I was very close to losing my card – and probably deserved to – based on where I thought my game was at. But it’s funny… I went from preparing to go to Q-School with quite a downbeat mentality to having my best finish of the year at Crans (-Sur-Sierre, the Omega European Masters) on my next start. It’s crazy how things go.
“I managed to keep my card over there and then I got selected for the Hero Cup, which felt like a big turning point, in the sense that someone had faith in my game even though I felt like I had been playing sh*te.”
Wallace can afford to smile about it now, but he does struggle to hide his emotions in the heat of battle. For better and worse, he likens himself to Jekyll and Hyde.
On the course, he can be intense, a slightly restrained Tyrrell Hatton when things aren’t going to plan. It’s not always a good look.
At the Valspar Championship in March, Wallace was caught on camera having a heated argument with French caddie Sam Bernard after he questioned his decision-making. The pair were seen hugging it out a few minutes later, but the narrative had already been written. His fiery reputation went before him and it wasn’t long before Twitter dredged up another ugly exchange with his old caddie, Dave McNeill, at the 2019 BMW International Open, for which he was heavily criticized. He’s been fighting to restore his reputation ever since.
“The thing is… I got the wrong information from Dave on the 72nd hole and ultimately it cost us the tournament. Right then, that was in the peak of my winning mentality so if anything went wrong, I couldn’t take it well. Whereas now I would like to think I take a lot more responsibility for decisions on the golf course.
“I couldn’t carry on being that person I didn’t like. Hopefully, I’m changing the narrative of ‘Matt Wallace, the angry beaver’ to ‘Matt Wallace, the competitor’.”
He is more philosophical now, less inclined to beat himself up over every bad shot. He’s also changing the way he works to avoid repeating the same mistakes. As well as becoming an equipment-free agent, he has hired a team of statisticians at Upgame to help him think and play smarter.
“I feel like I’ve loosened the shackles a little bit and given myself the freedom to play with what I want when I want,” he explains. “We’ve also done a lot of research into what I’ve been doing right or wrong. We’ve found that my preparation for tournament weeks hasn’t been where it should be.
“I’m now logging shots and logging tests to keep a track on what is improving so I can take confidence from that. And I haven’t been a confident player in a while.”
Wallace remains a work in progress, but he is committed to becoming a better version of himself and muscling his way into the Ryder Cup reckoning. He’s back working with English coach Matt Belsham and psychologist Lee Crombleholme, who know him better than most. Together they have helped to free up on his mind and his swing.
“We’re seeing a lot of encouraging signs and I’d like to say I look at results a bit differently now as well,” says Wallace. “When I first came out on tour, I was only ever focused on winning, so when I started missing cuts, I couldn’t understand why.
“My ebbs and flows were too up and down and my mental game wasn’t great. I was getting frustrated and you could see that on TV. I used to watch it back and I was getting angry very easily because I couldn’t take the disappointments. It feels like I’m starting afresh now.”
His team is still evolving, but victory in the Caribbean was as much an endorsement of their methods as it was a reward for Wallace’s perseverance. With a two-year PGA Tour exemption on the line, the 33-year-old went on a birdie blitz down the stretch, picking up four shots in a row to finish one ahead of fellow Ryder Cup hopeful Nicolai Hojgaard on 19-under-par. Congratulatory messages were waiting from Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, among others.
The win paid out $684,000, his biggest payday on tour, and has opened up a lot of doors, including the US PGA Championship this month and the Tournament of Champions next year. He still needs to qualify for the last two Majors of the year, but few would bet against him going on another run now. He has done it twice before and appears to be finding form at just the right time.
Luke Donald will be watching closely.
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About the author
Michael Catling is Today’s Golfer‘s Features Editor and an award-winning journalist who specializes in golf’s Majors and Tours, including DP World, PGA, LPGA, and LIV.
Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has traveled the world to attend the game’s biggest events and secure exclusive interviews with dozens of Major champions, including Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Gary Player, and Justin Thomas.
A former member of Ufford Park and Burghley Park, Michael has been playing golf since he was 11 and currently plays off a handicap of 10.
Away from golf he’s a keen amateur chef and has his own healthy recipes website. He also loves playing squash, going to the gym, and following Chelsea FC.