By Steve Douglas
AP Sports Writer
TROON, Scotland — Matthew Southgate was laid up on his sofa during the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews, barely able to move following surgery for testicular cancer.
Thankful to be alive, he initially figured his career as a European Tour pro was “dead and buried.” Doctors told him it would be a long process before he could even swing a club again.
Yet, there he was on Tuesday, walking down the 18th fairway under sunny skies at Royal Troon in the company of Rory McIlroy, preparing for his second attempt at the claret jug.
“It’s a great life,” the 27-year-old Englishman told The Associated Press next to Troon’s clubhouse. “I’ve just been very lucky.”
Lucky, maybe. But don’t underestimate the effort he’s put in to get this far.
A couple of weeks after surgery and finally able to walk, Southgate started hitting some balls, mostly putting and chipping. He took it gently to start off with, but stepped up things by using a light set of clubs belonging to his girlfriend — Charlotte Thompson, a pro on the Ladies European Tour — to gain confidence in making full swings.
Before long, Southgate was competing in the first stage of Tour school. And he defied the odds by earning his card for a third season on the main European Tour.
“I’m back now playing the best golf I’ve ever played,” Southgate said, with a smile.
He wept after finishing fourth at the Irish Open in May, which earned him $225,000 for the biggest pay check of his career. And there was more joy when he had the low score at final qualifying for the British Open at Royal Cinque Ports last month. This will be his second Open Championship, after missing the cut at Hoylake in 2014.
“Sitting there at home last year really gave me the inspiration to come back again and qualify,” Southgate said. “That final qualifying, everybody is trying hard but there was a little bit extra in the tank for me.
“It’s a tournament that means so much to me and obviously, with it being a year to the day since my problems, it’s a special thing for me to be here.”
Golf is full of players who have fought back from adversity. Jarrod Lyle of Australia, for example, returned to the U.S. PGA Tour in 2014 after twice overcoming acute myeloid leukemia. Erik Compton came back to earn his tour card after two heart transplants, and finished tied for second at the U.S. Open in 2014. J.B. Holmes had brain surgery in 2011 after being diagnosed with structural defects in the cerebellum.
Add Southgate to the list. A few weeks ago, he was told that doctors were happy with his progress and that he doesn’t have to go to see them as regularly. He’s involved in a charity that raises awareness of testicular cancer.
“The earlier people get it checked, and don’t dilly-dally or get embarrassed, the better,” Southgate said. “It’s nice that people know my story. It gives the opportunity for an 18 or 19-year-old lad, who’s maybe not confident, to just get up, get to the doctors and think, ‘If that Matt Southgate did it, I can do it, too.’
“If I can by any way help somebody else, it would be a huge achievement for me, golf aside. To be able to use the golf to reach so many people.”
Uppermost in his mind this week was his 3-year-old niece, Hattie, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and was coming to the end of her chemotherapy. Southgate is wearing a wristband that has “Hattie’s Heroes” on it.
Yet another source of motivation for a man who has dug deep for the past 12 months.
“I’m appreciating every minute of it,” Southgate said of his time at Troon. “It’s going to be a case of getting to 55, 60, putting my feet up on a nice comfy sofa, and going, ‘Wow, that was incredible.’”