The last time Matt Wallace was here at Sawgrass he was a first-year student at nearby Jacksonville State University. The young Londoner was disappointed to find that cold weather had rendered the famous course brown and was nothing like the green vision he had seen on TV. Today, eight years on, he will keep a promise he made to himself that day - to appear in the lush conditions of The Players Championship.
It is fair to say it has been some journey for the 28-year-old from London. A little over two years ago, he was playing on The Alps Tour, one of European golf’s more lowly feeder circuits, before five wins in succession saw him start his rapid ascent up the ladder. Now, he arrives as the world No 35 who does not see why he should not, as a debutant, win the event which Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, called yesterday to be recognised as “golf’s fifth major”.
Certainly, the determined 28-year-old is not intimidated, despite being in a field containing every member of the world’s top 50, including, of course, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Having been switched back to its traditional slot in March following 12 years in May, interest is greater than ever, but Wallace welcomes that pressure.
“I always have this philosophy that if you don't want to be in the limelight or be in front of huge crowds, then just don't play any good golf,” he said. “My mindset is not to be scared to compete at the highest level.”
In short, Wallace sees no reason why his staggering upward trajectory should slow down, never mind stop. “There’s no ceiling to where I want to be,” he said. He has won four times on the European Tour and on Sunday finished sixth in just his second regular PGA Tour event. That performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational has only added to his already brimming reserves of self-belief.
“The beauty of it was that it wasn’t my best stuff, but if I’d finished birdie, birdie I was in a play-off [with winner Francesco Molinari” he said. “No, sixth is not where I want to be, because I want to be lifting trophies, but it has made me feel good coming here. To play against the best is exactly what I’ve tried to do. I’m a rookie, who is 35th in the world and not many can say they’ve done that.
“You know, this city was good for me all those years ago. I was young, had been partying a bit, and knew I had to give it a proper go or pack it in. So I came here on a scholarship for a year. We'd be up at 5am for the gym, have a bit of breakfast before classes from 8.15am until 2pm and then straight on to the course. It was full on but great for me and I don’t think I would be back here unless I’d first come here. Tomorrow will be a very special day for me.”