While Rory McIlroy was playing a heroic final three holes — including titanic second shots into a pair of par 5s at The K Club — to win the Irish Open on Sunday, his Saturday playing partner, Matthew Southgate, was putting together a career-best finish.
With a birdie on the final hole, the Essex native wrapped up a fourth-place showing that made Southgate tear up.
Notching your first top five finish on Tour. pic.twitter.com/FeIEGfdaAG
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) May 22, 2016
The emotional reaction on the 18th green, and down the stretch, was the culmination of a difficult year for the 28-year-old and family.
“I can’t put it into words,” he said Sunday. “I’ve worked my whole life to be doing things like this, and to do it – I can barely talk about it. I’m choked up about it.”
Southgate had first earned his European Tour card in 2012, and, after holding on to status that first year, he did poorly in 2013. He cashed just nine times in 23 starts, with his only top-10 finish coming as a T-8 in his season debut in the Nelson Mandela Championship. He then toiled on the European Challenge Tour, struggling to pocket money. However, his priorities changed. He played scant golf in 2015 so he could be at home to help his 2-year-old niece, who is battling leukemia.
That July, he finished tied for fifth in a Challenge Tour event in Germany. He returned home and learned during a doctor’s visit that he had testicular cancer. Southgate had surgery to have the cancer removed, and he recovered in time to take another crack at European Tour Q-School. Without any status, he had to get through all three stages to regain his card. He did, going T-4 and T-7 in the first two stages before finishing in sixth place in the final stage to get back on the European Tour.
Through March, Southgate was again struggling. He had cashed just once in seven starts. Then things started to change. He finished T-19 in the Shenzhen International in China, T-22 in the Hassan Trophy and T-50 last week in Mauritius. However, going into the week in Ireland, Southgate was first alternate, uncertain if he’d even play. He got the call on Wednesday to get in the field, and he took advantage.
“I wasn’t even in the tournament Monday night,” he said. “I was still first reserve and when I got the phone call. I thought, ‘Right, this is a big opportunity.’
“I’ve been playing great for weeks. Something like this has been coming and I’ve been working really, really hard at it. I just stuck with my guns, did the stuff I’ve been working on in practice and it’s all paid off. My goal for the year was to keep my card and that’s just done it there. I’m absolutely thrilled to bits.”
So now you know why fourth place and the check for nearly $220,000 meant so much to Southgate. He has now pretty much locked up his status for 2017, and that frees him up to stop playing defensive golf starting this week at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.