Belfast man Matt McClean on the extraordinary journey which has taken him to the Masters in Augusta
Green carpets adorn the 1,200 square foot floor, a profound reminder of the history that exists within the four walls.
An open-plan room once called home by legendary figures from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods, next week an optometrist from Malone Golf Club will write his name into history in the Crow’s Nest.
Matt McClean is used to unique living arrangements, having roomed with competitor and friend Hugh Foley, the night before he defeated him in the final of the 41st US Mid-Amateur.
That victory at Erin Hills last September put McClean on track for a unique 2023 fixture list. He will play in the first Major of the year next week when he tees it up at the Masters in Augusta.
His unlikely journey will also see him feature at the US Open this year, it’s a real-life fairytale and one he is desperate to make the most of. However, he knows the history that’s there – no one has ever succeeded as an amateur in the Masters – and there are other goals to set his sights on.
“Can you go out and win it? Realistically, no. I don’t think there is any point in saying I can win, you have to live in reality,” said McClean.
“That’s not the goal for the week. There are six or seven amateurs playing. The goal is make the cut, to be there for the Saturday and Sunday. And then what comes with that is trying to win the low amateur. That’s my tournament.”
The journey to Augusta began in early May last year when McClean learned that the US Mid-Am was an over-25 event rather than the over-30 equivalents in this part of the world.
The Belfast native had his fixtures booked up for the following months and luckily, a trip to the town of Erin in Wisconsin became a feasible opportunity for all involved.
McClean hadn’t played competitively in USA and now was set to play alongside fellow Irish amateur Hugh Foley, while interestingly they ended up on opposite sides of the draw.
The two travelled Stateside where they stayed with a friend in north Chicago for five days before making the drive up to Wisconsin.
McClean’s girlfriend, Kate Jones, came over to stay with them for the week of the event and as they began to exceed expectations their time in their Airbnb ran out.
“Obviously, you can only book it up to a certain point, you are not booking it for the full week in case you don’t make it to the final,” said McClean.
“Luckily a friend of Hugh’s was staying with someone who was local. We met up for food one night and he got on really with him and offered if we needed somewhere to stay after the Airbnb we could stay with him. He hosted us for the rest of the week.”
Their host, Dan Benedum, would go on to caddie for Foley while prior to that McClean had his girlfriend on the bag for nine holes during the strokeplay. Jack Enea then took over for the last few rounds as things heated up on the course, although McClean and Foley continued to share a car and accommodation.
No Irish player had ever won this competition before this and as the last four whittled down to two, history had already been made. McClean and Foley would battle it out over a 36-hole championship match to decide who would take the honours.
“It was a bit surreal playing each other in the final. But at least one of us was able to win so it was a great experience and great to share it with Hugh,” said McClean.
“It was great craic. We were over for a couple of weeks down in Chicago playing a bit of golf. It was a bit more relaxed, we had fun. Hugh is great craic. We had a good few laughs. The car journeys and just even in the evenings and things like that.
“Obviously the week of the tournament was a bit more serious, it was a bit more business maybe. But that’s the way it was always going to be and that’s the way it should be.
“Even the week of the tournament, it was very friendly and we had no problems at all, we don’t have any problems with each other after either – it all came together nicely in the end.”
But there was always going to be some nervous energy, especially with so much at stake and a night to sleep on it.
“We talked about anything other than golf,” said McClean.
“It was weird as well because of the rain delay. The semi-final was all in the morning and then we played 18 holes of the final in the afternoon and we had to go back to the house and sleep and come back the next day.
“So we were sitting at the dinner table on the last night mid-final. We had only played 18 holes. We came back, had a bit of food, did our own thing for an hour. Then we were in bed pretty early.”
The final was delayed for a day-and-a-half but once he sealed the 3&1 victory and lifted the Robert T Jones Memorial Trophy, it transformed his future.
“I can remember the feeling, it comes back to my mind pretty quickly. It was a couple of things for me,” said McClean.
“I had been trying hard for the last couple of years to win a championship and I had come close a couple of times. I had a couple of really frustrating finishes not to win one. Just to cap off the last tournament of the year with winning a championship was a massive one.
“And then thinking about what you get and the prizes with it, was pretty overwhelming at the time. I didn’t really have too many words to say on the 17th?green when we finished.
“I didn’t say a huge amount for a few minutes after, just trying not to show too much emotion.”
Trying to handle the emotion of the next couple of weeks will be another huge challenge for McClean.
The 29-year-old first picked up a golf club in Balmoral Golf Club when he was 11, having put much of his focus on soccer and Gaelic football during his formative years.
Now he is one week out from the biggest of his life and when he climbs the steep staircase perched above the Champions Locker Room in Augusta National, it will finally sink in.
“It's one of those things that it is so rare to be able to stay there,” said McClean.
“It is just that whole thing with the tradition of Augusta and the Masters. I love that tradition and those things certain golf clubs have. Augusta is up there with the number one in the world from that perspective.
“Getting in and getting a night in there will be great. But even just in the clubhouse, there is an amateur dinner on one of the nights. You will go to the dinner and retire up to the loft of clubhouse and go to sleep, which is insane.
“Looking forward to the overall experience, it’s just the overall buzz and energy of the place. The people that are going to be walking around the grounds and the clubhouse.
“That’s one of the things that is totally un-golf related but it will definitely be a bucket list thing to be able to do.”