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The Long Road Back
Cameron Morfit
April 22, 2013
TEN YEARS AFTER A TENSE SUDDEN-DEATH PLAYOFF PUT THEM AT THE CENTER OF GOLF'S GRANDEST DRAMA, MIKE WEIR AND LEN MATTIACE ARE GRINDING TO RETURN TO THE STAGE
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April 22, 2013

The Long Road Back

TEN YEARS AFTER A TENSE SUDDEN-DEATH PLAYOFF PUT THEM AT THE CENTER OF GOLF'S GRANDEST DRAMA, MIKE WEIR AND LEN MATTIACE ARE GRINDING TO RETURN TO THE STAGE

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Still exempt by virtue of his two Tour victories in 2002 (the Nissan Open and the FedEx St. Jude Classic), Mattiace figured he had to play. He missed the cut at the '04 Masters and failed to produce a top 10 finish for the first time in his 10-year career. Although his short game was still occasionally terrific—Mattiace won the Compaq World Putting Championship in 1996—the rest of his game was a mess. After making a combined $3.4 million in '02 and '03, he earned $213,706 in '04.

More than many golfers, Mattiace looks like an athlete, possessed of a 6' 1", 185-pound frame. He had all the right credentials after a gilded amateur career. He helped Wake Forest win the 1986 NCAA crown and played in the Walker Cup, which earned him an invite to the '88 Masters. (He missed the cut.) And he was nearly infallible on that special Sunday at Augusta in 2003, holing out for a miracle birdie after short-siding himself at the 8th, draining a transcontinental birdie putt on 10, making eagle on 13. None of that helped slow his free fall.

"I came back too soon," he admits now.

He made nine cuts in 34 starts in 2005, and six of 22 in '06. Demoted to the Web.com tour, he made two of 16 cuts in '07. For years Mattiace penned handwritten notes and mailed them not only to tournament directors but also to pro-am partners, and his goodwill was rewarded. He got into 10 Tour events in '07. Alas, he missed the cut in every one of them.

"I guess you could say it's affected me all the way until today," Mattiace says of the injury. "I got into a lot of bad habits."

Today he thinks he has kicked most of them, and a tie for fourth at the Web.com tour's season-opening Panama Claro Championship in February buoyed his spirits. What's more, the Web.com tour will send an unprecedented 50 players to the big Tour at the end of this year, and Mattiace has his sights set on a comeback.

"Nobody will ever know what would've happened to Lenny if [the accident] hadn't happened," Kristen says. "He got called into the interview room at some tournament and was asked, 'Can you tell us what Tiger's going through?' And he pretty much stopped them in their tracks. He said, 'Tiger's got one bad leg. I had two.' Lenny literally didn't have a leg to stand on; he couldn't use the good leg to help him rehab the bad one the way Tiger could."

Mattiace received about a thousand letters of support after the 2003 Masters, and he has kept them all—they live in a square oak box in his office closet. There's the handwritten one from Byron Nelson; another from Greg Norman; the note from Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein, even though Mattiace by then was mostly playing a competitor's equipment. Many of the letters are from strangers. Mattiace spoke from the heart in the interview room after the playoff, weeping as he articulated his love of golf and his appreciation for his magical round. He touched people. "Len Mattiace is all class," says Jeff Weber, his caddie for the two victories in '02 and the runner-up at Augusta. (The missed cut in 2004 was Mattiace's last trip to Augusta National.)

Every year, right around the time of the Masters and the Players Championship, Len and Kristen get requests from the media. It was at the 1998 Players that Mattiace, a shot off the lead and playing for his cancer-stricken mother, Joyce, who was being pushed around the course in a wheelchair, hit two balls in the water on the 17th hole and made a quintuple-bogey 8. It was as brutal a loss as you're likely to see in golf. Sometimes he does the interview; sometimes he doesn't even return the call.

They are fine financially. Mattiace has made almost $7 million in his career, and he's still at it, picking up almost $25,000 in Panama. He still has endorsements and still sometimes shines on tougher courses, even if those are rare on the Web.com tour. At home, he and Kristen organize their lives around Gracee, a 10th-grader who plays on a nationally competitive volleyball team, and Noelle, a sixth-grader who plays tennis and swims. Len and Kristen will celebrate their 20th anniversary this summer. "We're blessed," Kristen says. "It's all good. We're in a good place."

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