Southgate eager to enjoy experience of The Open after cancer battle
When Matthew Southgate left Royal Liverpool after missing the cut on his debut in The Open two years ago, he vowed that next year would be different.
It was – but in ways he could never, ever have expected.
On the Wednesday before the start of The Open in 2014, Southgate played a practice round with his childhood hero Sergio Garcia; 12 months later he spent the eve of the Championship in hospital having surgery for testicular cancer.
“I thought after 2014 that The Open is the sort of tournament where you've got to get it wrong to get it right,” the 27-year-old Englishman says of his first appearance. “But I didn't really figure how wrong it could get.”
“It's such a special week, so much history and tradition. I love it.”
Returning home from surgery, Southgate sat himself in front of the television. “First and foremost I was thinking a lot about my health,” he says. “But watching The Open proved how much the game means to me, how much I wanted it.
“It's such a special week, so much history and tradition. I love it. Sitting there all day, watching how people put their rounds together, it helped that week.
“Watching guys fist-pump after a putt dropped was a real reminder. I was thinking; I want to be doing that.”
The weeks which followed were tough. Southgate knew he needed to journey through all three stages of Qualifying School to return to the European Tour. He was worried his fitness would fail him, but he cleared every hurdle, including overcoming the emotion of the moment.
“Everything that happened at Q-School,” he says, “I'd done it 100 times in my head sat at home in recovery.”
Fast forward to May, the K Club and the Irish Open, where Southgate finished fourth to earn the biggest cheque of his career, enough to retain his European Tour card for the first time in his career.
“The range at Wentworth the next week was unreal,” he laughs. “Every player, every caddie, the manager, the tour guys, the equipment guys, they were all so chuffed. Everyone wanted to shake my hand. I never really got a chance to hit a ball.”
It wasn't just golfers who took heed of his story; “People have got in touch to tell me they've been diagnosed with cancer themselves and my story was helping them fight it. I can understand that. It's pretty easy to get down on yourself, you need a bit of inspiration.”
In early July, he returned to Final Qualifying for The Open. Two years previously he had claimed victory at Sunningdale with his eldest sister Anna on the bag, this year he repeated the trick at Royal Cinques Port with girlfriend Charlotte Thompson, who plays on the Ladies European Tour, doing the duties.
“It was massive,” he says, laughing again. “My family love The Open.”
His father Ian is responsible and has been attending The Open for over 40 years. Anna was a four-month-old baby in her mum's arms in the grandstand behind the 18th green when Seve Ballesteros won so famously in 1984. Southgate himself had the best seat in the house during the conclusion of The Open at Carnoustie in 1999.
“My dad went up to Carnoustie in the 1980s to play an event and he loved it so much he became a member. We all went up for the week in 1999 and when Jean Van de Velde was playing the last hole one of the marshals called some of us boys forward to sit on one of the bridges that cross the Barry Burn.”
As the Frenchman paddled in the rising tide, 10-year-old Southgate was just yards away, dangling his legs over the same water.
“I didn't really realise how important it all was to be honest.”
The same year he told his hero Garcia that he wanted to become a professional golfer. “Sergio showed me his hands. They were covered in callouses and he said: 'That's how hard I work, you need hands like this.'”
It was a lesson he never forgot.
Ten years later it was his father's hero who drew them north. “My middle name is Tom because Watson is dad's favourite and when he was in position to win in 2009 we just couldn't miss it.
“We got up at a stupid time in the morning, drove 500 miles from Southend to Turnberry, followed the entire round and cried our eyes out when he didn't win it.”, he says followed by a big laugh. “Like I said, my family love The Open.”
Family means a lot to Southgate. In November 2014 his sister Katie's 18-month-old daughter Hattie was diagnosed with leukaemia. Her fight continues. When he was closing in on his fourth place at the Irish Open, Anna, Katie, youngest sister Harriet, girlfriend Charlotte, plus nephews George and Dexter were all watching in the bar of his club, Thorpe Hall in Essex.
“We're really good friends,” he says of his siblings, “a really tight bunch. This whole thing has given me perspective and I'm really just trying to make them all proud. To know they were watching that day, that I could use what I love doing the most to put a smile on their face after what we've been – and are going – through, it's brilliant, isn't it?”
“Obviously Hattie and Katie can't come up this week, but everyone else is,” says Southgate. “People have told me I'm an inspiration but my sisters are. Katie is amazing. Harriet and Anna collect swabs for Delete Blood Cancer and they've got thousands of people added to the bone marrow register which potentially helps so many people.
“If people have been inspired by my story I'd really say, please think about joining. It could mean so much to someone.”
It's been quite a year. “Yeah, I didn't mind watching The Open on TV,” he says and then adds with a final laugh, “It's going to be better playing it though. I can't wait.”