HARTFORD, Conn. – If anyone is handing out a Class Act of the Year Award, they better present it to Brandon Matthews.
Brandon who, you ask? The 25-year-old Brandon Matthews, who turned what could have been an ugly disappointment into one of the most compelling, compassionate and heartwarming acts of sportsmanship in the history of the sports.
Matthews was on the third hole of a playoff with Ricardo Celia in the PGA Tour Latinoamerica Visa Open de Argentina in Buenos Aires on Sunday with a berth in the 2020 British Open on the line. Each had shot 11-under-par 269 for 72 holes, and after Celia drained a 30-foot birdie putt, Matthews had to make an 8-footer to force a fourth extra hole and keep alive a bid to be at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, Kent, England, in July.
Then freaky misfortune struck. As Matthews took his putter back, he heard “kind of a yelp or scream. I kind of flinched on the putt and immediately knew I missed it.”
As the putt sailed past the hole, the startled Matthews swung around and peered and gestured to the gallery in search of the offending party.
“I thought someone had done it intentionally,” Matthews said. “I’d been putting well all week and had no doubt that I was going to make the putt. At that point, any minute noise resonates. I gave it a little too much right hand, missed it and turned around and said, ‘Come on guys, seriously?’ I was obviously frustrated and shocked it just happened.”
While the victorious Celia was doused with water on the green, the heartbroken Matthews headed to the locker room, where he was approached by Claudio Rivas, PGA Tour Latinoamerica tournament administration manager.
“Listen, we are so sorry,” Rivas said. “It’s a terrible situation, but here’s the deal.”
Rivas told Matthews that a middle-aged man with Down Syndrome had made the noise in his backstroke. He had gotten excited and lost control of his emotions, and as soon as Matthews got the details, he told Rivas to take him to the man and returned to the course.
“His switch – his face changed,” Rivas told GolfChannel.com. “He almost broke into tears.”
Probably because the incident touched home. When Matthews was growing up in Dupont, Pa., his mother Donna managed group homes, and his best friend had a sister with Down Syndrome.
“I was around people with mental needs growing up, and I have a soft spot in my heart for it,” Matthews said. “Those are really special people. I felt so terrible that I was even upset. I just wanted to make sure that he didn’t feel bad.”
With Rivas helping to translate, Matthews met with the fan, gave him a hug, signed a glove and a golf ball and chatted with him for a few minutes to try to make sure he had a positive experience.
“I felt for him, and I’m sure he felt terrible, but it’s just one of those things that happens,” Matthews said. “I gave him a hug and asked, ‘Hey, are doing OK? Are you having fun?’ I just wanted to make sure he was enjoying himself, that he had no hard feelings, that he didn’t feel bad about what happened.
“I didn’t want anyone to be mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at himself. I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t mad. That’s all I wanted to do. It made my day to see the smile on his face, and that was as good as a win.”
Rivas said, “He (the fan) was very happy. His name is Juan. (Matthews said), ‘I am sorry. I hope you enjoyed the golf. This is for you. Thank you.’ That’s what he told him.”
The misfortune came at a particularly difficult time for Matthews, who learned to play golf from his father, Ted, a former baseball player and general manager of McCarthy Tire in a nearby town, and had spent the fall remaking his swing after “a really rough” summer. He turned pro in 2016 after a college career at Temple, where he once went on an 11-tournament Top 10 streak that included three consecutive victories, and then won the Molino Canuelas Championship on the Latin America Tour in 2017 and played the last two seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour.
But back problems led to mental struggles and three months of disappointment. From the Kansas City Classic in May to the regular season-ending Ellie Mae Classic in August, Matthews withdrew or missed the cut in 11 consecutive Korn Ferry Tour events and 17 of 21 overall. Only a few weeks into work with a new swing coach, he failed to advance out of the first stage of Korn Ferry Tour qualifying school.
The swing changes finally paid off last week with a tie for fifth in the Nequen Argentina Classic. Then he gets into a playoff for the right to qualify for his major championship debut – and someone yells in his backswing on a putt.
Though Matthews won’t be going to Royal St. George’s, he will have full Latinoamerica status in 2020 thanks to his last two finishes. And what happened Sunday superseded winning or losing or any other career concerns.
“It’s going to sting (not playing in the British Open), and there are times I’m going to think about it,” Matthews said. “But at the end of the day, I’m 25 years old and have a long career ahead of me. Some things are bigger than golf, and this was one of them.”
Brandon, please step forward and collect your Class Act of the Year Award. You deserve it.