Playing Professionally: The Matt Davidson Interview

Most of us play golf casually with our friends as a way to sneak out of work in the afternoon when we’re trying to make our 4:38 tee time (see what I did there?) or as a relaxing way to spend a Saturday or Sunday when the weather gets nice. We head out, full of optimism, hack the ball around the course and head home. But for a very select few, golf can be a profession. We all watched Brooks Koepka make Bethpage Black look like a local par 3 course at the PGA Championship and the guy I most recently had the chance to interview falls closer on the spectrum to Brooksie than he does to us bogey-golfers.

Enter Matt Davidson. Matt is currently the head men’s golf coach at Furman University and spent much of his adult life trying to make it as a professional golfer. Matt grew up in New Jersey playing every sport he could get involved in because of his love for competition. At an early age, Matt excelled in baseball and basketball and it wasn’t until he was about 12 years old that he picked up a golf club for the first time – which is much later than most professional golfers begin playing. Matt had an uncle in Maryland who was a club professional and two more uncles on his mom’s side of the family who were also avid golfers and they got Matt interested in the game. By the time Matt was a high school freshman he had already become very good with the sticks and decided that golf may give him the best shot to continue his athletic career beyond high school, especially because he was smaller in stature than a lot of other kids his age. So Matt went all in with golf and his development progressed rapidly. Once he reached 11th grade, he was being recruited to play college golf and began weighing his options for where he wanted to attend school. He knew that he wanted to be somewhere down south because of the better year-round weather and his parents also wanted him to get a good education. He was considering Duke University but ultimately ended up at Furman under then head coach, Todd Satterfield.

In the fall of 2001, Matt enrolled at Furman as a political science major and from the outset, he showed incredible promise on the course. Golf, unlike other sports, does not provide many opportunities for players outside of the starting lineup to play. If you’re good enough to qualify for college tournaments, you play. If not, there isn’t that chance for you to enter off the bench late in the game. But as a freshman, Matt was competing in all of the Paladins’ tournaments, and he was succeeding. After promising freshman and sophomore years, Matt entered his junior season full of hope and confidence. He had climbed the ranks of U.S. amateur golfers and the thought that this could turn into a career started to become more realistic.

Upon his graduation in the spring of 2004, Matt officially decided to make a run for the pro ranks of golf. He spent the summer of 2004 getting his game pro-ready and was ready to take the next step. Any golfer who wants to become a PGA player has to go through what is known as Qualifying School, or “Q-School” which is made up of multiple tournaments that begin in September each year. After each tournament, the field is cut down through the months of September, October, November and into December until only 25 players remain. Those 25 players are awarded their PGA tour card and go on to compete with the best of the best golfers in the world. Most golfers going through Q-School for the first time do not make it all the way through every event and end up on the “minor league” tour which, at that time, was the Nationwide Tour and is now the Tour. (The Tour is the equivalent to the baseball AAA level of competition if the PGA is considered Major League Baseball.) But as Matt closed out the summer of ’04 and prepared for Q-School, he caught fire. On his first attempt, Matt eventually made it all the way through Q-School, telling me that he just got hot at the right time and he eventually made it all the way through the PGA qualifying prerequisites to earn his PGA tour card. This was a near impossible feat that Matt had accomplished and is something that may never be seen again. This is because Q-School is now set up in a way where golfers who make it all the way through qualifying are rewarded with a birth on the Tour, not the PGA.

So here was Matt – less than year out from his college graduation and he was preparing to play in his first ever event on the PGA Tour – the Sony Open in Hawaii. Matt made his way to the Aloha state fully expecting to fly under the radar with the rest of the rookies. But just as his rise through high school and college golf as well as through Q-School were anything but under the radar, this tournament would hold true-to-form. Upon his arrival, Matt learned that he would be paired with an up-and-coming phenom in the golf world by the name of Michelle Wie, who would be playing in a tournament in her home state after arriving on the golf scene with a bang. Matt went on to detail how his first tournament would be played in front of the largest galleries of his career all while not having his game up to a level where he felt he could compete. Matt ground his way through the first two days of the tournament playing in front of massive crowds and dozens of TV cameras and unfortunately did not make the cut in that 2005 Sony Open (neither did Michelle) but felt like overall, that that event would serve as a great learning experience for his career. Matt went on to make six PGA tournament cuts in his rookie season, including a 14th place finish at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, but 2005 would turn out to be his lone season at the highest level of golf.

Following his 2005 campaign, Matt went back to Q-School in an attempt to re-gain his PGA Tour card but was unsuccessful. From there, he made his way to the mini tours, which in baseball terms would be equivalent to the A level of competition. He was there for four years, playing mostly in the Carolinas and living in Chapel Hill with his future wife, Natalie. Matt told me that out of the 100 or so players on the mini tours, only about five can make a living at that level. And fortunately for Matt, he was one of those five. Without a financier bank rolling his attempt to get back to the PGA, Matt knew he had to play well – and he did. He was making enough to pay his bills but the mini tours are not a place where a golfer can advance his career. In order to do that, you have to get through Q-School.

Fast-forward to 2010, after five years of grinding his way through the mini tours, Matt made it all the way through Q-School and earned his Tour status. He would go on to play in 148 Tour events over eight seasons, making 90 cuts including a T-2 finish at the Brasil Champions event in Sao Paolo, Brazil and 15 other top-10 finishes. He amassed career earnings of over $650,00 and finished as high as 34th on the money list in 2011. He also has a career-low round of 62 which he achieved at the 2016 WinCo Foods Portland Open.

Matt and I went on to discuss a multitude of other topics. Here is the rest of my interview with Matt Davidson:

Ben Mathey: What is life like week-to-week and day-to-day for a golfer on the Tour?

Matt Davidson: It’s very similar to the weekly schedule of the PGA Tour. Obviously we weren’t playing as nice of courses as those guys and the purses aren’t as big but the schedule is the same. You travel on Mondays, going straight from city to city. It’s rare to get to sneak home for a day between tournaments because it’s so much travel. Tuesday was the day where you would play your practice round on the course. I also used Tuesday as a day to really work on my game so Tuesdays were a long day for me. Wednesday was the day we’d play in a ProAm which was the event put on by the corporate sponsors of each tournament. The actual tournament would start on Thursday and conclude on Sunday. Then you’re off to the next stop on Monday so it’s a lot of travel for about 30 weeks a year. I’d try not to go stretches of playing more than five weeks in a row but there were times where you felt like you needed to keep going. I think one time I played 13 events in a row and countless times where you were on the road for a month straight.

BM: Were there opportunities to have practice time with your coach if you weren’t playing in a tournament in a given week?

MD: Definitely. I tried to map out my schedule at the beginning of each year and you try to find a week where you’re off where you can get some time with your instructor. I had a few guys that I worked with that were within driving distance of the Carolinas but you want to take few days off as well – you wanted to get refreshed so the off weeks went by quickly. You’d want to take two or three days to rest or workout then see your instructor and then you’re back on the road. But in the winter you’d have two or three months of downtime so you definitely used that to re-charge.

BM: During your time on the Tour, how did your weekly routine evolve?

MD: It got easier and more efficient for sure. I’d go back to same courses year after year so I wouldn’t have to grind as much on the practice rounds. I’d just have to get a feel for how firm the greens were rolling that year and how firm the course was playing that year but I wouldn’t have to learn many new courses. Then I got to the point where my game, physically, required a lot less maintenance. I wasn’t searching as much as when I was young – I knew what it was and I knew what my tendencies were.

BM: If you were playing a new course, how did you structure your practice round?

MD: The keys to the practice round are really finding your lines off the tees – what club am I going to use? Where am I aiming off the tee? Do we need to be down the left side of the fairway or the right side? You have to take wind into account so is this hole a 3 wood, is this hole going to be a layup or can I attack the green? Then just doing A LOT of work on and around the greens – just trying to get a feel for the speed, the firmness, good places to miss to certain pins, terrible places to miss to certain pins and just making sure we had a good yardage book each week.

BM: In your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between the guys on the Tour and the guys on the PGA Tour?

MD: It’s tough. It’s tough because it is a really fine line between those two tours. It’s…I think it’s probably some confidence – having that self-belief matters a lot when it’s that fine of a line. Physically, you have those 20 or 30 guys that are so good that nothing’s going to prevent them from having long, fruitful careers on the PGA Tour. But the rest of the guys, guys that are playing well on the Tour, guys that are struggling to keep their card on the PGA Tour – it’s a really fine line so a lot of it just comes down to belief in yourself. Sometimes it comes down to timing, you know? The ability to finish off a tournament when you have a good week going. I mean that’s huge and a lot of people don’t realize that. You could have two guys that have the same exact years but then one guy plays poorly in three final rounds and the other guy finishes with three 4th place finishes and he’s got his card. It is such a fine line that a lot of times it comes down to just finishing off your good weeks.

BM: Your best finish was a tie for second in 2015 at the Brasil Champions. What was that experience like?

MD: It was a fun week. It was in Sao Paolo, Brazil. It was a good golf course and it was one of our biggest purses of the year. Most of the purses out on the Tour are pretty similar but a few are bigger than others and that was a big one. I remember I was hitting it nicely, I was putting well – I was certainly in good shape going into the final round – I think I might’ve shot two or three under. I had one of my best friends out there, Peter Malnati, ended up just playing great and ended up winning by four or five so I never really felt like I was in the hunt in the final round but whenever you’re in the hunt for a top-five finish, the last few holes are pretty critical. There’s a lot of pressure. I remember hitting two really good shots into 18 and having about a 15-foot birdie putt and I do look at leaderboards, especially on the back nine in the final round because I like to know where I’m at. I knew there was about a seven-way tie for second place and I knew there was only one group behind me so I knew it was a big putt. And I hit a good putt – burned the edge, made my par and the guys that were behind me made par too. So we ended up in a seven-way tie for second. It was a nice finish but I think all seven of those guys were kicking themselves because it was probably honestly about a $40,000-$50,000 difference between solo second and a seven-way tie for second. So it was a big chunk in the money list and it might have made a difference that year for me getting my (PGA) tour card or not.

BM: Is there another tournament or two where you felt like you really were in contention in the final round?

MD: Yeah there were absolutely a couple times. I felt like I was in the hunt of a bunch of times as long as I was out there for. So I guess the ones that kind of stick in my mind the most…San Francisco one year. I remember parring the last 12 or 13 holes. I made a birdie early on and it was a tough course. It wasn’t like I was getting lapped and making pars and I remember I had a couple good saves in there but I also had some nice looks at birdie. I three-putted a par five in the second nine. I missed about an eight-footer on 17 for birdie and missed the playoff by a shot. It was a three-way playoff. I remember I think Si-woo Kim ended up winning. He’s won the Players Championship now and that one left a mark for sure because being one shot out, having that many chances – I was obviously right in the hunt the whole round. And then I remember playing a great final round in Knoxville. This was probably right when I was starting (back again on the Tour), probably around 2010 and shooting eight under during the final round to sort of vault up the leaderboard to finish the round two shots clear of Chris Kirk, who had about eight holes left. And he just played great. And it was one of those courses where the birdies were out there and the scores were low. I mean 20 under, he might have been 20 under so I knew I wasn’t a lock. But I was definitely kind of like getting ready to maybe warm up, maybe have a playoff. He (Kirk) played great, I think he ended up making four birdies coming in or something like that. But I remember right when I finished that round I think I was like maybe I did enough to have a shot here. So those are the two that kind of stick in my mind.

BM: Which year, from start to finish, was your best overall year?

MD: It was probably my second year out there, probably 2011. I had a bunch of top tens, made most of the cuts and finished the year maybe 34th on the money list. And I was in the top 25, which is what you need to be in to get your PGA Tour card probably up until about a month and half left in the season. But you just have to keep playing well right to the end unless you win an event. If you win an event that’s a huge springboard – you just need to play solid the rest of the year. If you don’t (win), you just need to keep churning out those top five, top ten finishes because somebody’s winning tournaments and jumping past you. So I wouldn’t say I collapsed in the last month and half but I didn’t get the job done like I needed to.

BM: What’s your favorite course that you’ve ever had the opportunity to play?

MD: Pebble Beach…these are all going to be pretty obvious ones…Pebble Beach, Winged Foot and Oakmont. I played two of them in a tournament, Pebble Beach and Winged Foot. Those are incredibly hard courses that don’t have any bad holes. And then I played Oakmont in kind of a ProAm type thing when I was playing an event out near Pittsburgh and it was incredible. You know, tough courses, obviously…Pebble’s more scenic than the other two but I like courses where there’s just no bad holes. Every hole’s good. Every hole’s got a challenge, every hole’s unique, no holes look the same and every hole is just solid.

BM: How about an under-the-radar course that maybe isn’t as famous as those three?

MD: When we played every year on the Tour at Ohio State’s Course, the Scarlet Course – I love that course. I don’t want to a call it a miniature version of anything because it was pretty long and hard but it’s sort of like a miniature Winged Foot. Just tree-lined, rough, long, good par fours, good green complexes. That was always one of my favorites out there. For it being a university course, kind of public course like that, it was in good shape. It wasn’t the most incredibly conditioned course but the layout was just terrific.

BM: What’s the craziest story you can recall from your time playing?

MD: There were a lot of crazy stories that I probably can’t recall. But I think any tournament I played in that Tiger was playing was pretty nuts that year I was on the PGA Tour. It’s hard to realize how different the feel is when he’s playing a tournament versus when he’s not. So I do remember in San Diego I had to kind of squeeze in to a spot on the range right next to him and being just so nervous just kind of flipping wedges. I didn’t want to get in his way and I didn’t even want to hit there. But my buddy who was caddying for me was already walking to that spot with the bag of balls and he yelled at me – probably something I can’t repeat here – basically like “WE’RE HITTING RIGHT THERE” But it’s just different when Tiger is out there. People are crazy, the crowds are crazy. You know where he is on the golf course even if you’re not playing with him.

BM: Do you remember a really bad shot that you hit in your career? (I asked this because I wanted to know about a time when a professional felt like the rest of us mere mortals)

MD: I’ve hit a lot of bad shots. One was when I was an amateur. I vividly remember trying to close out my New Jersey State Am and I think I was like eight or 10 shots ahead going into the final round. But I was ahead of a good buddy of mine, who was a terrific player in college as well and this tournament was on his home course so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and he was playing well. I was kind of giving it away in the final round and we got to the last hole and I still had a two shot lead. I put my drive in the middle of the fairway and I had people congratulating me walking to the ball and I was like “Just calm down for a second, let me see if I can get this thing on the green.” And I shanked it…and I don’t even hit shanks so I don’t even know how it happened. It went right off the hozzle into the water like 60 yards short, right of the green. And he hit a good shot in there to like eight or 10 feet. I had to take a drop but hit a really nice little pitch shot inside his and he had a chance to just put a ton of pressure on me and he missed it. So I ended up knocking mine in with the pressure off but it was really pretty tight there for a second.

BM: What led to your decision to move into coaching after your last year on tour in 2017?

MD: Well I wasn’t on the PGA Tour which certainly played a role in that. If I could’ve gotten back out on there on the PGA Tour and logged a few more productive years you could realistically play golf into your early to mid-forties if you stay in shape and do things right. But you are usually on your decline when you’re getting close to 40 and not being on the PGA Tour, the travel with my family and having two boys definitely got me thinking I was at the point where it wasn’t worth it. My second boy was born in July (2017) and I remember leaving, literally leaving while he was still in the hospital. He was born on like a Sunday night, early Monday morning and I left on Wednesday to go to Omaha to play and then I wasn’t back for four weeks. That’s when Natalie and I decided we had to transition to something different and I had always thought about coaching. I had always talked to a lot of people about it and always thought that that was what I was going to end up doing. Obviously, it worked out great and I’m pretty happy with how it worked out. I feel like I had a nice career and it would’ve been nice to get a few more years on the PGA Tour but I love what I’m doing now.

BM: You ended up back at your alma mater (Furman) as an assistant coach for a year and now you’re the head coach. What was that transition like?

MD: It was a good year. We had a good first year. You learn a lot, especially about the specifics of coaching: how to tailor what I’ve learned to all 12 guys on the team rather than just thinking about it through your own way of learning – that was one of the biggest challenges. And then setting a lineup and making sure guys have a fair chance to qualify. It’s an interesting sport that way in that you’re either playing or you’re not. And then also the practices and recruiting, I think came pretty naturally and I feel like I’m a pretty quick learner.

BM: Is there anybody on the team now that is the next Matt Davidson?

MD: Yeah we’ve had a lot of talented players but Keller (Harper), who’s won the conference player of the year the last two years, is clear-cut better than I was at that age. I do think it’s more competitive now than it was when I was playing but he knows that. He works really hard which is the essential thing you have to do if you’re going to play for a living. He’s confident and physically he has a lot of game so I think he’s certainly on pace to have a good, successful career.

BM: What do you find most rewarding about coaching?

MD: Helping the guys with their golf game but also, you know, with stuff outside of golf. It’s fun to see them improve. It’s fun to see them play well and they put in the time, the work and see it pay off for them. It was nice to have had some good results and see some improvement early on because that’s why I got into coaching. And then to actually be out there with them and watch them and see how hard they work and see them be successful in the tournaments was pretty cool.

BM: What do you love about the game of golf?

MD: I love the competition for sure but that’s the same for all sports. But golf specifically, I do love how every day when you show up you have a chance to figure a little something out, learn something, just have that click with something you’ve been working on. You never know when that day is when it’s all just going to click for you. And maybe other sports are similar to that but I just never got far enough along but there’s just so much to it (golf) that every day, without a doubt, you can learn something new and improve on so many different aspects of the game. You’re always playing different golf courses and hitting different shots and I just love the fact that every day you can show up and learn something that becomes a springboard. It gives people that hope every time they show up. You know that you’ve hit that great shot, you’ve made putts before and it’s not like, say basketball, where there is somebody that you know is just physically superior to you and you know that you just can’t score on them. You just know that you have hit the shots, you can hit the shots, and it’s like today is the day where I’m going to go do it. I think that brings people back for sure because if you’ve done it once, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it again and having that great round.

BM: For someone who is maybe a mid-level handicap player, what’s one good drill you can do on the (driving) range?

MD: I think the biggest thing would be for people to simulate what they do on the golf course more on the range so instead of just hitting at one target with one club over and over again, change targets and change clubs. Try to picture little fairways out there, picture greens – make it more so that when you get on the golf course, it feels similar. Because it’s not always going to be the same (shot) out there. You’re not always going to have a flat surface with the same wind. And then, and I tell this to my guys, just try to have a repeatable, dependable ball flight for every shot. You have to be a really good PGA Tour player to be able to draw balls and fade balls and hit it high and hit it low and do all that stuff. So if you hit a fade, then just make sure it’s not a big old slice and if it’s a draw, make sure you can do it over and over again.

Closing thoughts: Obviously, Matt has played at a level that we (I) will never achieve so he has different perspectives and thoughts about the game but what he said about why he loves the game is why most of us love golf. The fact that we have the opportunity every time we go out there to make something click brings us back time and time again. I really enjoyed speaking with Matt and hearing his story and just having the opportunity to “talk shop” with him a little bit. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be lucky enough to play a round with Matt and pick his brain about some specific mechanics-related stuff about the game and the golf swing. Side note: Matt was telling me after we finished the interview that this (Memorial Day) weekend he was heading out to California to play a number of courses including Pebble Beach as part of a bachelor party and my jealousy level was, and still is, sky high. Very soon, I will be releasing the 4:38 Tee Time logo as well as the 4:38 Instagram and Twitter accounts so be on the lookout and as always…good hunting!



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