Originally created 06/11/02

Len Mattiace returns home to Bethpage

Len Mattiace can now breathe easy and let his mind wander back to happy childhood memories of warm spring days and buried lies at Bethpage State Park.

Of the 156 players who will be in the field this week for the 102nd U.S. Open, the Jacksonville resident grew up in closest proximity to the course that will serve as the first municipal venue for the Open. For the first 14 years of his life, his family lived in two homes, the first five minutes away from the Long Island municipal course, and the second 10 minutes away.

He moved to the Jacksonville area in 1982, won a Florida state high school title in 1984 while at Nease, and has gone on to a respectable professional career. Last February, Mattiace captured his first PGA Tour title at the Nissan Open.

However, Mattiace sweated out a few weeks when he was on the bubble of making the top 50 in the World Golf Rankings by May 27, the only category that would have gotten him into the Open without having to play in a 36-hole sectional qualifier.

He made it, for his third U.S. Open start and first major championship appearance since winning the Nissan. Mattiace can now assume the unofficial title of resident PGA Tour expert on Bethpage, having played several junior high school and high school tournaments on the Black Course.

"I got about 20 interview requests since the Masters," Mattiace said."People figured out I came from near Bethpage, and naturally, they wanted to know what I thought. But I didn't want to talk until I was sure I'd be in the tournament."

Now that he's in, Mattiace said let's talk.

"It's going to be a tremendous U.S. Open course," he said. "It was a difficult course before the USGA lengthened it, but they've also gotten it into great shape. Visually, it's going to be fun for the players and the fans. Most of the holes will look very good on TV."

Mattiace said the primary hazards on the course will be the numerous fairway and greenside bunkers, most asymmetrical, most deep.

"The traps around the greens will be really striking," he said. "With the rough up, they'll come into play."

Mattiace and his older brothers Ken and Bob played the Bethpage Black and Red courses while competing at Jericho High School. Ken and Bob Mattiace played for two New York state champions at Jericho, and Len played on the team as an eighth-grader for one year, before the family moved to Ponte Vedra Beach.

The brothers played for Tony LaRocca, who retired in 1995 after coaching the Jericho golf team for 30 years. He said Len, Ken and Bob had one thing in common.

"Every one of them had a tremendous work ethic," LaRocca said."They'd hit balls for hours after school, until it got dark, and don't forget that the weather up here isn't like Florida. But if it was windy, rainy, cold or even snowing a little, they'd practice."

And the brothers also played the Bethpage Black course well. LaRocca said one high school district tournament was won by Ken Mattiace with a 69, followed by Bob with a 70. LaRocca said Len Mattiace shot even-par at Bethpage as an eighth-grader.

"We'd put the high school kids on the back tees too," LaRocca said."Not as far back as the pros are going to be playing it (this week), but far enough."

All three brothers also remember Bethpage as a stout test, even if the conditioning, while perhaps standard for municipal courses in the 1970s and early 1980s, was a bit below par.

"They even had a local rule back then that allowed you to move rocks in the bunkers," Bob Mattiace said."There were just so many of them."

"You still might be hitting bunker shots off rocks, if there were some ones below your ball," Len Mattiace added."But the rough was inconsistent. You could be in high patches of rough, or have a bare lie. Some greens were fast, some slow ... there was no consistency. But you could always see the great layout in front of you."

Ken Mattiace, who has played on the Buy.com Tour and Hooters Tour, said that Bethpage in its slightly scruffy state of 25 years ago, was still among his most treasured memories in golf.

"It's still one of the top five courses I've ever played," he said."It may be a mystery now to people outside of that area, but once the Open is played, people are going to rate Bethpage along with Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills among the great Open courses in New York."

Len Mattiace said the millions the USGA has spent on the course, and the touch-up job by Rees Jones, has resulted in a gem.

"I've been back there the last two summers, and it's in fabulous shape," Mattiace said. "They could have had PGA Tour events there the last two years, and the guys would have come away raving about how great it was. They've moved some tees back and re-did some greens, but the layout was still everything I remembered."

Mattiace said this year's U.S. Open will be much like competing in The Players Championship every year, except there likely will be more relatives watching him at the Open. In addition to the Jacksonville side of the family his father Lou, his brothers and and his wife Kristen and two daughters, Mattiace will play in front of the Long Island and Rhode Island sides.

Tickets, predictably, will be a slight concern.

The USGA gives each competitor eight tickets, and the opportunity to buy 10 more at half-price. That still won't be enough (Mattiace said the final family count may be around 50), and he'll have to hit up fellow Tour players for a few extra tickets.

"Kristen will be the ticket agent," he said of his wife."That will take a load off. There will be some deep feelings the entire week. The first house I ever knew is right there, it's really where I began to play competitive golf. It might be hard to concentrate sometimes. There may be more pressure. But I've gotten experience in that with The Players Championship every year."

Mattiace said the best way to stay focused will be to keep reminding himself that he enters the Open playing the best golf of his pro career. He was 24th on the money list as of June 3 with $1,138,327 (already the first million-dollar season of his 12-year professional career), peaked at 43rd in the World Golf Rankings last month (rising from 165th at the start of the season) and is 19th in scoring average.

"I'm having my best year, and I'm in a good groove," he said."It will be in the back of my mind all week that I will be in a major as a Tour winner for the first time. Every event since (the Nissan Open), I've been able to draw on the experience of winning."

And what better way to experience it where it all started?


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