ORLANDO, Fla. — Brandon Matthews‘ viral moment had little to do with golf, and everything to do with human decency. And it led to an opportunity this week to play in his first PGA Tour event.
Matthews, 25, was faced with an 8-foot putt to extend a playoff last November at the Argentine Open, a tournament on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica that was offering the winner a spot in this summer’s Open Championship.
As he was about to hit the putt, Matthews was distracted by a spectator who shouted and made a loud noise just as he was striking the ball. Matthews missed, losing the playoff, and looked around in disbelief.
At first annoyed, Matthews quickly learned that the fan had Down syndrome and went to talk to him, offering a golf glove and a hug in a video that made the rounds on social media in a gesture that still resonates nearly six months later.
When he learned that the fan had Down syndrome, he immediately asked to meet him. pic.twitter.com/kBbVNqNwsh
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) November 18, 2019
“It was obviously a tough situation,” Matthews said Tuesday at the Bay Hill Club, where he will make his first PGA Tour start on Thursday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “I was frustrated at first, didn’t understand the full circumstances behind it. But once I did it was a pretty easy situation for me to handle.
“My mom used to work in group homes and I was around that kind of stuff my entire childhood. My best friend’s sister has Down syndrome. So I saw it on a daily basis and I just kind of have a special place in my heart for it.”
The family of the late Arnold Palmer took notice. Along with tournament officials, last week they offered Matthews a spot in this week’s 120-player field and noted that Matthews responded “just as Mr. Palmer would have — with kindness, humility and grace.”
It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind for Matthews, who has not played in an official event since the fall. He did not qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour — which is the developmental tour beneath the PGA Tour — and will return to PGA Tour Latinoamerica when its schedule resumes.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Matthews said. “I didn’t expect anything from it. It was funny, one buddy came up to me afterward and goes, ‘Oh, this is going to pick up and stuff.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not. We’re in Buenos Aires. Nothing is going to come of this.’ I’m just happy I was able to make this guy happy and put a smile on his face. So I had no idea that it was going to get as big as it did.”
A native of Pennsylvania like Palmer, Matthews turned pro in 2016 after playing golf at Temple. Although he was on the Korn Ferry Tour for two years, last year he was relegated to PGA Tour Latinoamerica and made just four cuts in 21 starts, earning less than $9,000. Getting into contention in Argentina was a big deal.
But last summer he started working with Australian instructor Dale Gray, who is based in New York and studied under former Tiger Woods coach Hank Haney for 10 years. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Matthews hits the ball miles, and it’s not really hyperbole.
“He has a swing speed of 130 mph and a ball speed of 190,” Gray said, noting that Matthews can carry his drives 350 yards. Asked for a comparison on the PGA Tour, Gray said Matthews’ ball speed is on par with Cameron Champ‘s, one of the longest drivers on tour, and ahead of someone such as Rory McIlroy.
“But you have to corral that length,” Gray said. “His mishits were way off line. We’ve been working on taking away the big miss.”
Because he hits the ball so far, Matthews does not carry a 3-wood or a 5-wood, Gray said. “He can carry his 3-iron 290 yards, so there’s no point.”
The idea this week is to take in the scene and get some experience.
“My mindset over the last couple months was just to get my game to a point that I’ve never gotten it to before with consistency,” Matthews said. “I’m working with my swing coach and it’s been really, really good. I’ve been really happy to see some of the results that I’ve seen, the consistency coming, and I really think I can compete out here on a weekly basis. So excited to see how it stacks up.”