2023 – A year of endless possibilities for Major man McClean

Ronan MacNamara

Matthew McClean, US Mid-Am Champion. (Image: Steven Gibbons/USGA)

It was back to the day job for Matthew McClean who returned to work as an optometrist at the weekend after an incredible summer of golf that saw him go from Irish golf’s nearly man to history maker. 

Last month McClean became the first Irish golfer to win a USGA final when he defeated compatriot and close friend Hugh Foley in the US Mid-Am decider at Erin Hills. But despite coming back down to Earth on Saturday, the well wishes and congratulations are still flowing in. 

“It’s a nice thing to be able to say to be a champion or say you’ve won a championship of any stature,” McClean says. “To have that first one be in America was pretty odd and it’s nice to look forward to having your name on any trophy no matter what standard or calibre so I’m still getting the messages and that coming in and it’s all very nice. Great to be in that position. 

“You know how it works, it goes a lot quicker than it comes. It’s nice with next year sort of general plans there will be interest in the first half of the year so I will get used to it over the next six months.” 

Having shaken off his tag of ‘nearly man’, the 29-year-old can look forward to continued media attention. McClean is due a date with Augusta National for the Masters before pitting his wits in what is commonly known as golf’s toughest major at the US Open. 

He will become the seventh Irish amateur to play in the Masters following JB Carr (1967, ’68,’ 69), Garth McGimpsey (1986,’ 87), Michael Hoey (2002), Brian McElhinney (2006), Alan Dunbar (2013) and James Sugrue (2020). However, he isn’t counting his chickens until that famous letter of invitation arrives at his front door. 

“It’s the same for any invite for amateurs, it’s a likely invite is the wording at the moment so in my mind I’m still waiting to get the hardcopy invitation in the post which is December before it hits home so I’m trying not to think about it,” he says.

“It’s somewhere where you’re just happy to set foot on the course, never mind playing and for it to be in Masters week is unthinkable.  

“In the history of Irish amateur golf it’s a small club to be a part of, if it goes ahead. The smaller clubs are the better to be in because it’s tougher to get into them it would be class if I got in absolutely unbelievable.” 

The Belfast optometrist is guaranteed an invite to the US Open where he will be living it up in LA with some of the world’s best and a stacked Irish contingent.

“That’s the one I’m excited for because it’s a guarantee with the USGA so it’s more real to know I’m playing in it,” he says. “That’s locked in so it’s really cool. To just mix with those names and the Irish contingent will be surreal.  

“They always seem to be helpful and generous with their time so we’ll see what happens. Obviously Neil [Manchip – Team Ireland coach] has close contacts with Shane [Lowry], obviously Harrington took the time out to congratulate me after the final and the role he has in golf is massive so it would be cool to spend time with those kinds of people. I’ve never met them so it would be cool. 

“Darren Clarke was massive, Graeme McDowell won the US Open and McIlroy took it to new levels. The ability McIlroy had was unattainable for golfers whereas the stories of McDowell, Clarke, Harrington and Lowry is more inspiring for the amateur golfer.” 

The story of how both McClean and Foley came to tee it up in Erin Hills is an opportune one. The US Mid-Am wasn’t originally on their schedules but upon completion of the Irish Amateur calendar, both players were ranked high enough in the WAGR that they did not need to qualify for the championship. 

The pair roomed together for the week; little did they know that they would be going to bed a few days later before facing each other in the final. 

“It made it more special the fact that we didn’t know about it, there was that level of unknown,” McClean admits. “To be the first Irish to play it and make the final and get the win was really special. It’s nice to be in that position and to say you were the first to do something.

“The USGA events are taken very seriously, the American coverage was very good and the event was ran as well as any event I’ve ever played so that gave a sense of how big it was. I think we were going to dinner after 18 holes of the final and it was on the Fox News channel which was pretty surreal. 

“I started thinking if it made national news in America it must be pretty big. In terms of back home we were both oblivious to it other than we were getting a lot of messages on our phones from people who don’t really watch golf and they saw it on the news. So to get it on that level of the news in Ireland was cool,” explained McClean who admits winning the US Mid-Am capped off the best year he’s ever had and ticked off a few season goals at once. 

“It’s the best year I’ve had by a distance. You can see that by the teams I managed to make before the Mid-Am win. I managed to make every team I could make up to the three-man team in France which is incredibly hard to make. 

“Leading up to that win in America I was obviously trending in the right direction to make those teams and the only thing missing was a win so it was nice to tick all the goals off. 

“You have goals at the start of the year that you want to achieve and you list them down and see what you can do, thankfully the win in the last week of the year ticked a few boxes. Winning a championship was one of them, another goal was be top-100 in the world rankings which that brought me into and being the top ranked Irish player. That all happening in the last week of the year was a bit sweeter as well.” 

Until last month, the 2022 season had been a serious case of what might have been for the Malone native. A playoff defeat to Colm Campbell in the Irish Amateur Championship, a runner-up finish to Foley in the North of Ireland Championship, a semi-final loss in the Irish Close as well as two top-6 finishes abroad. This had the feeling of one of the great, if unfulfilled seasons for McClean who also made every team possible including the three-man Eisenhower Trophy side. 

McClean remained calm over the questions if he would ever win a major title always maintaining the belief that he had a golf swing capable of getting over the line. 

“You have that belief that you’re always going to win one. When you get so close you have to have that belief, you’re only a putt away. A couple of times I was one 20-footer away so it was the finest margins that were stopping me winning,” said McClean who reached the last-16 of the Amateur Championship in Royal Lytham. 

“I never doubted I could win on golf alone but it gets into your mind sometimes when a few things don’t go your way and you don’t win one and it happens again, there is a sort of doubt that creeps into your mind, not that you’re not up to standard. Lee Westwood was world number one and he’s probably the best player to never win a major and there are other players out there who don’t win tournaments in that sort of way so I had an acceptance not to worry about it, just go out and play. 

“That took some relief off the shoulders. There was definitely that little bit of pressure to get one over the line and that was nice to do. The idea now is if you can do it once, go and do it another few times.” 

I spoke to McClean at the end of 2021 after what had been a solid if unspectacular season for him but some trojan work with lifelong coach Michael McGee in Malone Golf Club and some short game excellence from Neil Manchip has seen his game reach a new level. 

The key? Practice, practice, practice. An inspiring story considering he is a late bloomer in the game having played GAA and soccer before taking up golf in Balmoral Golf Club. 

“I did nothing different with my swing,” McClean admits. “I have never really swung the club any different in my life. I did a lot of work with Michael McGee because he knows how I swing and I felt my swing was always good enough to win things. It was just practicing those things and having that consistency with Michael over the years has been brilliant because you’re not trying to chop and change every few months. 

“I did quite a lot of work with Neil Manchip starting in 2019 so for nearly three years on short game which has been great. It’s much more consistent and varied in how I can play shots. My short game was good but limited to mainly one type of shot, so he’s done a lot of work on that. 

“There’s no other way about it, just practice. There’s no other answer than to just put in hours of practice. You don’t see the amount of hours the professionals put in on their short games.” 

McClean, now Ireland’s highest ranked amateur at 84th, will take a few weeks off before ramping up his preparations with some warm weather training in Gran Canaria before travelling to South Africa in the New Year. 

Such a fantastic year has undoubtedly raised questions about a jump into the professional ranks. However, he has pushed those ambitions to the end of 2023 with his main goal being to represent Great Britain and Ireland in next year’s Walker Cup at the Home of Golf . 

“Walker Cup is the main goal and something I would love to play,” he says. “That’s definitely on the cards next year to make that team. At St Andrews it would be an unforgettable week. 

“It’s just about focusing on individual tournaments and try to play as well as I can and just see what happens; I can only control what I do. Obviously I would love to be there.  

“Two majors next year will be class and hopefully a few European and PGA Tour invites – that idea has been floated to me. It’s a great opportunity to see where I’m at with my golf game, the hardest jump to make is from amateur to professional so it will be eye opening. The idea is to take it as seriously as possible, put the hours in and see what happens but I have no immediate plans to turn pro but I’ll see what happens next year and make a decision at the end of next year.” 

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