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It's a crying shame for Mattiace

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The magic had long since left him. Len Mattiace was mortal again.

It was late, and the day of his life was darkening around him. Mattiace stood outside the media center, trying to put into words how an unforgettable day comes to a forgettable player, and just like that, it was too much for him to manage.

Mattiace's voice trembled and his eyes watered, and suddenly, his emotions boiled over. There, in the fading light of his finest afternoon, Mattiace wept.

Do you want to know how much this game can mean? Do you want to know why players chase the ball, year after year, when it seems it is leading nowhere? Then add up all the dreams and all the disappointments and all the determination. Throw in the problems and the pain and the perseverance.

Then multiply that number by Len Mattiace's tears.

Maybe then, you will know what Sunday meant to a guy you barely have heard of.

Mattiace didn't win the Masters on Sunday. He did shake the golf world by the lapels. He finished one stroke away from winning the best tournament of all, one stroke away from setting a course record for Sunday. For almost a decade, he has been a journeyman, and suddenly, he was on the most amazing journey you could imagine. He had six birdies and an eagle, and by the end of the day, he made sure everyone knew his name.

In the end, Mattiace fell just short. He lost the title in a playoff to Mike Weir, who played a dandy round of golf himself.

This is the dream of every knockabout player in golf, of every rabbit who keeps plugging around, tournament to tournament, year to year, hoping the swing will get better and the putts will fall. Someday, they tell themselves, there will be a day such as this one.

Mattiace, 35, should know.

He's been dreaming it himself for years.

"I dream about days like this all the time," Mattiace said. "You can dream anything you want. It doesn't matter if you're 10 years old, or 20, or 30. You dream about being on the back nine of the Masters, with a one-stroke lead, with a chance to win."

You know.

Like Sunday.

He is just another guy, okay? A backup singer, a member of the supporting cast. It took Mattiace 220 tournaments and seven years before he won any tournament. It was last year's Nissan Open. You are forgiven if you did not know.

No one notices players such as Mattiace. He is so anonymous that when he signed his scorecard Sunday, you expected officials to ask him for two pieces of identification.

He is Len Mattiace, for goodness' sake, and players such as Len Mattiace do not win the Masters. Players such as Mattiace buy their own jackets, okay? This is a stars tournament. You have to go back to Tommy Aaron in '73 to find a champion at Augusta who was as pedestrian as Mattiace.

Oh, there was a time, 15 years ago, when Mattiace thought it would be different. He was an amateur here then, staying in the Crow's Nest. He'll tell you that, even now, he can remember every shot he hit and every meal he ate.

"I would have thought, being the college stud, that I wouldn't have to wait so long (for a day such as this)," Mattiace said. "I thought I would zip right into the pros and win my first and second year, that I would be top 30 every year, all those good things."

Instead, it has been a struggle. It took him until 1993 to get his PGA Tour card, and he promptly lost it. He didn't get back until '96.

All those years, the Masters kept its doors shut to Mattiace. He simply wasn't good enough to qualify for this tournament. Someday, he would tell himself, he'd be back. Someday, he'd be a contender.

The world is full of golfers telling themselves that. Most are delusional. Most are never going to spend an entire day in the zone, when their focus never fades, where the bounces are never bad.

Mattiace had a day like that Sunday. What he had, basically, was the day most of us expected Tiger Woods to have.

"It was a career day at a career tournament," Mattiace said.

True, it could have been better. Mattiace bogeyed the 18th hole, allowing Weir to tie. He lost the playoff on the first hole, the ball skittering from one side of the green to the other, the way you would expect it to for the Mattiaces of the world.

When you wait so long for one day, when you pour your entire life into a game and it smiles on you on such a stage, you do not let losing ruin it. Yes, Mattiace finished second, but that wasn't why he cried.

You want to talk about tough times? How about 1998 at the Players Championship? Mattiace was in the hunt, one stroke back. His mother, Joyce, dying of cancer, sat in a wheelchair and watched.

Mattiace hit his first ball into the water. He hit his second into the bunker. He hit his third over the green and back into the water.

His mother never saw him play again.

Yes, Mattiace wept. Of course he wept. How could he not?

"This game is emotional for people who care," Mattiace said. "If you don't care, it's no big deal. But if you care and you really want it and it really goes to your heart, then it's probably going to be emotional, I would think. The emotions come out."

This is for all the pluggers then, all the also-rans and scrappers and underdogs who struggle to get a bit better. This is for all those players who have the audacity to believe they, too, can find themselves in that land beyond dreams that Mattiace visited.

Keep dreaming, guys.

Keep dreaming.

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