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Len Mattiace, 25 years later: A Players tale of tragedy, redemption and a mother’s word of love

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Joyce Mattiace was wheelchair-bound.

Her cancer had robbed her of the ability to walk or speak clearly, so the family communicated with her through notes passed back and forth.

But when her son Len Mattiace walked out of the scoring trailer just off the 18th green of the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 29, 1998, minutes after signing a card in the final round of the Players Championship that included the dreaded “snowman” at the par-3 17th hole, he bent down to give his mother a kiss and heard one powerful word.

Mustering all the strength she had, Joyce told her son, “proud.”

What’s a couple of water balls in front of thousands of fans and millions of TV viewers matter when it comes to that?

What does losing a chance to win the PGA Tour’s marquee tournament matter?

First, tied for fifth, dead last … what does any of it matter when your mother loves you unconditionally at your lowest moment?

“The more time has gone by, the more that has meant to me,” Mattiace said.

This is the story of two numbers, 17 and 8.

It’s also the story of a family’s love and one bad hole on national TV that only exposed one thing: a heart as big as the Island Green.

A golfing family

It’s been 25 years since Len Mattiace stood on the 17th tee of the Stadium Course, one shot off the Players lead held by Justin Leonard and nine — count ’em, nine — birdies on his scorecard through 16 holes.

It was a glorious spring day and the Stadium Course galleries began swelling around Mattice wherever he went, getting louder and more enthusiastic with every putt he dropped and every step up the leaderboard he climbed.

Two holes remained — the two most dangerous holes in professional golf.

“The crowd was just roaring,” said Barry Craig, who coached Mattiace on the Nease golf team and was later the Bartram Trail athletic director. “He always showed a lot of emotion when he played well and people were feeding off that. And when he birdied No. 16, everyone was really getting jacked up.”

It was the second start Mattiace made in the Players, the culmination of a journey that began when his father Lou moved the family from New York to take advantage of the year-round weather and nurture the golf games of his three sons, Ken, Bob and Len.

All three were regulars at Ponte Vedra courses — the Stadium, Dye’s Valley, the Sawgrass Country Club (where the family lived) and Oak Bridge (now The Yards).

Ken and Bob Mattiace played college golf at USF and had respective cups of coffee on mini-tours but settled into teaching careers. Len was the youngest who couldn’t beat his brothers until he was on the verge of heading off to the Wake Forest golf factory on the coveted Arnold Palmer Scholarship.

“Lenny,” as the family called him, attracted attention by winning Nease’s first state championship as a junior in 1984 at Bent Tree in Sarasota and became one of the most highly-recruited junior players in Florida.

Mattiace helped Wake Forest win a national championship, turned pro in 1990 and then labored on what was then the Ben Hogan and later the Nationwide Tour before getting his PGA Tour card in 1995.

That meant he had finally passed his brothers — and they have no regrets.

“Lenny was the little brother but he was tough,” said Bob Mattiace, who teaches at the University of North Florida’s Hayt Center. “When we were in high school, he couldn’t touch us. Then he was the No. 1 recruit in Florida, along with Michael Bradley, and he’s still not beating us. But the whole time he’s not beating us, he’s building character. Then he catches up.”

And hovering over it all was Joyce Mattiace, the matriarch, and her sons’ biggest fan.

“Family always mattered the most,” Ken Mattiace said. “Mom and Dad told us all the time that no matter what we did, as long as we were doing the right thing, we had their blessing.”

Hard work ran in the family

If the Hollywood of the 1940s had done a movie about Otto Mattiace, he might have been played by James Cagney. It’s an American tale of a man who found the streets weren’t paved with gold, but then watered them with the sweat off his brow.

Mattiace came to America from the Italian coastal town of Bari, checked in at Ellis Island and lived in New York City. Among his many jobs to support a growing family was to deliver ice — huge blocks, 75 pounds or more, picking them up with large tongs and carrying them up flights of stairs to East Side tenement apartments.

He passed along that work ethic to Lou Mattiace, who became a successful businessman on Long Island — successful enough to make the move to Florida to make sure his sons achieved the American dream their grandfather had for them.

Len Mattiace embodied that in his journey to the PGA Tour. Never the longest off the tee when distance began to matter, he survived with accuracy and a sure putting touch (he won the World Putting Championship at the Hall of Fame Putting Course).

“They were a serious golf family,” said 1988 Players champion Mark McCumber. “I had watched Len play since he was a junior and he was not afraid to work.”

Craig said Mattiace set the tone for his Nease teams, by example.

“The school had just opened and all the Ponte Vedra kids went to Nease,” Craig said. “We had some country-club kids there and once the matches were over, they would scatter. Len would head straight for the range and hit balls until dark. The other guys started to notice and pretty soon they were staying behind. That’s when the program really got good and it laid the foundation for many years. Len was a special young man.”

Mattiace wasn’t all about golf. He got a degree in sociology at Wake Forest, then embarked on his quest to reach the PGA Tour which included some adversity with several stabs at the qualifying tournament process.

But he finally got his card in 1992, lost it, regained it in 1995 and was on the Tour to stay.

‘Look at her … capture that’

Mattiace qualified for his first Players in 1997 and the local knowledge served him well as he tied for 24th.

“Len was a great example of how a guy could play well at the Stadium Course, since it didn’t favor the long hitters,” McCumber said.

In 1998, he was headed for much more.

A variety of players traded the lead back and forth for three rounds, including three past champions, Fred Couples, Lee Janzen and Tom Kite. Janzen was the 54-hole leader at 10 under. Justin Leonard was five shots back and Mattiace six behind.

That morning, Joyce Mattiace, who had been diagnosed with cancer nearly a year earlier, surprised the family by insisting she wanted to go to the golf course to watch Len play. That meant someone would have to push her in a wheelchair over 18 holes, but she was adamant and she didn’t lose many arguments in her family.

“She wrote a note that said, ‘take me to watch Lenny,’” Bob Mattiace said. “It surprised us. Our first thought was, ‘how are we going to do that?’”

Lou Mattiace did most of the pushing, pull and maneuvering, assisted by Bob and a family friend and one of Mattiace’s teachers at Nease, Nat Heekin.

Len Mattiace had some misgivings. He wasn’t sure how he would handle competing in the final round of the Players with his mother being wheeled around the course.

His sports psychologist, Fran Pirozzolo, told him to embrace it, to look at his mother as much as possible and “capture that.”

He did. He also stared down every flag.

Mattiace began the day by draining a 40-foot birdie putt at No. 1. He turned, and chipped in for birdie at No. 10. Then he birdied Nos. 12, 13 and 14, parred No 15, and birdied No. 16.

He one-putted five holes in a row. And walking to the 17th tee, Mattiace felt a flood of emotion surge through him.

“I was having the round of my life,” he said.

Anatomy of an eight

Mattiace’s playing partner, fellow Wake Forest graduate Scott Hoch, had the honors at No. 17 and rifled his tee shot to within 2 feet. He turned to Mattiace and said, “do the same thing.”

Mattiace and caddie Jeff Weber didn’t debate club selection very long. They had 146 yards to the hole. Mattiace thought a wedge might cover the front bunker, but just barely.

“We didn’t talk much about the pitching wedge,” he said. “We thought it was a 9-iron the whole way.”

Mattiace drew the club back and hit the perfect shot — for 156 yards. The ball flew over the flag and into the water on the other side of the green, on the fly.

“I didn’t account for the adrenaline I was feeling,” he said. “And looking back, it spiked a little more when I saw Scott’s shot.”

Mattiace ducked his head and an NBC camera cut to a shot of Joyce Mattiace watching the shot. Her face was expressionless.

But within a few seconds, it was time to minimize the damage. Mattiace went to the drop area and pulled a sand wedge. He got under the ball a bit and it landed in the small bunker on the Island Green.

Mattiace settled into the bunker and took aim. But the swing was quick and too flat. He hit a 12-handicapper skull out of the trap and into the water again.

By this time, the cries and moans from the crowd were audible, even on TV. Faced with no choice but to keep swinging away, Mattiace dropped in the bunker and somehow nudged his sixth shot onto the green. He two-putted for an 8 — a quintuple-bogey, five-over on one hole, undoing more than half of the birdies he had dropped on the course that day.

Watching on TV was McCumber, who had missed the cut that week on the 10th anniversary of his 1988 Players victory. McCumber had been the first area resident to win the Players. Mattiace now had no chance to become the next, with Leonard making birdie at No. 16 to take a two-shot lead over Glen Day and Tom Lehman.

“No one who has played the game long enough hasn’t gone through that,” said McCumber, who six months earlier had dumped a shot into the water at PGA National on the final hole to lose a chance to win the PGA Championship. “To see Len go through that, when he had battled so hard … well, I knew the feeling. It’s all timing. If he had done the same thing on Thursday, no one would have noticed.”

Mattiace struggles with the what-ifs.

“If I hit that on the green and make par, maybe I win, maybe I don’t,” he said. “No one would ever talk about that. Does it matter more because my mother was dying? Did I play well because I made nine birdies to that point, or did I fail miserably because I hit one solid shot that was too much club?”

“Was there a higher meaning to it?” he finally wonders.

Facing the music

Mattiace had one hole left. Somehow, he striped a 3-wood down the 18th fairway. When he and Weber checked the yardage, it was a perfect number for his 9-iron.

Without hesitation, Mattiace pulled the club he hit off the 17th tee and hit his second shot to within 12 feet. He drained the putt for his 10th birdie of the day and a 70. At 6-under 282, he tied for fifth and earned his biggest career paycheck at $146,000.

Outside the scoring area the media had gathered, expecting Mattiace to conduct an interview there. But PGA Tour communications official Ana Leaird recognized that it would be better to get Mattiace in the locker room, let him cool down, then come to the main interview room at the Players media center.

Mattiace entered the news conference with a smile and answered every question. When the issue of his mother watching every shot came up, he replied, “I felt like a failure … until I saw her after the round and gave her a kiss.”

And heard that special word: “proud.”

“It defined him more as a person than a player,” said Ken Mattiace, who watched the final round on TV in Hershey, Pa., where he was a club pro. “The way he handled it, the way he birdied No. 18.”

Bob Mattiace finds it difficult to talk about it.

“I still get emotional,” he said. “He’s a fighter. He fought to get on Tour, then he came up at a time when he was fighting against Tiger, Ernie Els, David Duval, all the greats in the world. And his upbringing told him, ‘keep trying … keep fighting … maybe something good will happen.’”

Three months later, Joyce Mattiace passed away the week of the U.S. Open, at the age of 61. Lou Mattiace died in 2018 at the age of 83.

Becoming a PGA Tour winner

Making an 8 at the 17th hole hardly defined Len Mattiace as a player. Four years later he won his two PGA Tour titles in the same season, at Riviera in Los Angeles and TPC Southwind in Memphis.

A year later — and 20 years ago in April — he experienced another crushing disappointment, shooting 65 in the final round of The Masters, then losing in sudden death to Mike Weir. Mattiace bogeyed the final hole in regulation after a drive he pushed under a bush on the right, and Weir had to make an 8-foot par putt to force the extra hole.

Another heartbreak, followed by another instance of grace in defeat. In a re-run of his post-round interviews at the 1998 Players, Mattiace again faced the media with no excuses and no self-pity.

But who fires 17 birdies and an eagle in two Sunday rounds at two of golf’s biggest stages, loses both, and comes away just as respected as if he had won?

“Two bad swings … people might remember the shot over the green at the Players and the drive at Augusta,” he said. “I don’t think that way at all. I don’t dwell on it. I think people remember how I reacted but my friends and family who saw that weren’t surprised because that’s how I’m wired. That’s how my parents raised me.”

If anyone wants to feel for Mattiace, fast-forward to the winter of 2004 when he took his family skiing. During a nasty spill on the slopes, Mattiace tore the ACL and MCL in both knees.

When he came back he was unable to muster the accuracy that once was his hallmark. Mattiace was off the Tour in a few years and never contended again.

At 55 years old, he has made sporadic runs on the PGA Tour Champions, gaining access through Monday qualifiers and sponsor exemptions. Mattiace has played in 16 events and his best finish was last year, a tie for 34th at the Shaw Charity Classic.

“I feel like I should be out there and I’m not,” he said. “I can’t build any consistency. I feel like if I could play 10 weeks in a row my game would come out. The fire is still there.”

Mattiace dives into charity work

What Mattiace has done in the interim is give back, through his Len Mattiace Foundation. His main focus is the “Stop the Bullying Campaign,” in which he has visited 55 First Coast schools to engage students in how to better treat their classmates.

He has also sponsored a charity tournament for the First Tee — North Florida in each of the last three years. His foundation has raised nearly $500,000.

“I’m healthy, happy and living a great life, doing what I want to do,” he said. “We’re reaching kids who have been bullied but we’re also reaching kids who have done the bullying and challenged them do something good. Our message is kindness, compassion and inclusion.”

Mattiace has two daughters. Gracee, a Fordham graduate, is a reporter for KRCG in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Noelle is a senior at Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, majoring in political science.

The Mattiace brothers have all raised high-achieving children. Ken Mattiace’s sons, Gavin and Tian, are Naval Academy graduates with plans to be pilots. Bob Mattiace’s son Michael was a five-time academic All-SUN player at the University of North Florida and is pursuing a pro golf career and his daughter Alivia works for the PGA of America.

“The kids have a great work ethic,” Bob Mattiace said.

Again, it’s all about family.

For years, visitors to the Mattiace household would notice a photo on the wall. Joyce Mattiace is sitting in her wheelchair, with her husband Lou behind her. Standing next to him are Len and his wife Kristen, who is holding 10-month old Gracee.

They are all smiles, faces bathed in Florida sunshine. For all a stranger would know, they were at a family outing, perhaps a birthday party.

The photo was taken after Len Mattiace’s final round in the 1998 Players. He’s got the broadest smile of all of them.

After all, Mom just told him one word.

“Proud.”

Photos: 2023 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass

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