Not too long ago Matt Wallace, the British golfer who charged up the ranks this year with three wins on the European Tour, was considering quitting the game for a regular job.
“I started to send off emails to management companies,” said Wallace, 28, who is playing the Turkish Airlines Open this week. “I decided I would use my love for sport and go down that route. I never got one reply.”
One of those emails went to the former pro and current golf agent Andrew Chandler at International Sports Management who, like all the others, never responded to Wallace’s job pitch. “He didn’t reply, either, and he hates that fact. But in the end it worked out because now they manage me.”
Wallace was struggling in those years, lost in the wilderness of not knowing what he was doing wrong. He cycled through a few coaches with no results.
“The problem wasn’t mental, it was technique-based,” Wallace said. “I lost tournaments under pressure because of my technique. I couldn’t stand up to the gun. I was working really hard in those years. I was just working on the wrong stuff.”
Wallace was hitting a wall. “I got better at what I was good at, but I didn’t change my technique,” he said. “I kept losing tournaments. I needed change.”
Wallace found his way to the coach Matt Belsham in 2015. “He’s a very technical swing coach, and that’s what I needed.” But he didn’t expect Belsham’s approach to be so brutal. When he first hit balls with him at the driving range, Belsham was not impressed. Belsham laughed and told Wallace that he must be really good at chipping and putting.
“That kind of stuck with me,” Wallace said. “I’ve never had a coach say something like that to me. It was quite cool. We got right to working on my game.”
Belsham said he would have to change fundamental techniques of hitting the ball to reach the level he wanted to play; he also told Wallace that he was nowhere near that level. “He was brutal and blunt, which was exactly what I needed,” Wallace said. They worked hard on his swing with the theory the swing makes the ball do what it wants to do. “He was brilliant,” Wallace said.
As his swing changed, Wallace was approached by the veteran caddy Dave McNeilly in 2017. “That was really cool,” Wallace said. “I had in my head the idea that a caddy should be young. You see a lot of very young caddies on tour now. That’s what I thought I wanted. Someone I could talk about sports, cars, golf and life. And that is completely the wrong thing for me. Coming out on tour, you need knowledge and history. The caddy needs to know every course we play like the back of his hand.”
“We talk the same language when it comes to golf,” McNeilly said. “He’s also got a nice sense of humor. I can be a bit wacky, but he goes along with it quite well, and we can talk about anything, no matter how random the subject I bring up.”
Wallace and McNeilly, 66, paired to play the Irish Open that year. “His experience is phenomenal. He’s brilliant. He’s been amazing,” Wallace said of McNeilly. “He’s always trying to get the best of himself every week, and he never rests on his laurels.”
McNeilly also said he knew how to handle Wallace as he grew as a player. “It’s perfect because he’s got the hunger, energy and passion, but is still learning the game. I’ve seen players go through that learning process before, and I understand the frustrations it can bring and I can run with it.”
The third act in Wallace’s success play came in another coaching change. That same summer he started working with the coaches Robert Rock, who still plays on the European Tour, and Rock’s understudy, Liam James.
“I’ve had two sets of eyes on my swing for the last 12 months,” Wallace said. “They go back and forth and help me swing my club as well as possible. We’ve got a great thing going there. We’re just always trying to improve the technique, which gives me confidence to go out there, swing it great.”
Working as a team, the coaches have reduced mistakes and significantly improved his game. “We’ve made his swing shorter, his strike quality is better and the flight is more consistent,” Rock said. “With the short game, we’ve also used other players to help improve Matt, such as Thomas Bjorn and Paul Lawrie, who we are also working with.”
The run of success has been a whirlwind, Wallace said.
“It started on the Alps Tour, a sort of mini-tour that travels around Europe, to the Europe tour,” he said. “I found myself playing really well and found myself in a really good position. Then it was the Challenge Tour. Did well in my first event in Kenya. Got 25th in Turkey. Then was invited to play Portugal, which I managed to win. That got me my European Tour card. It was a crazy eight months. And it just went from there. My game has just improved as time has gone on. I don’t think there’s been any secret to it — it’s been hard work. I’ve always felt like I could win golf tournaments. I just started moving up through the ranks.”
Along the way, he has kept a close eye on a fellow Englishman, Tommy Fleetwood, who has had his own meteoric rise. The two have played a few times over the past few years.
“We’ve had a few chats,” Wallace said. “It’s funny. You can’t just ask about his rise and success. It’s a difficult question: ‘How do you do it?’ The answer is almost always hard work. He’s been at it longer than I have, and he’s at the top of his game. He’ll be up there for a long time. He’s a brilliant player. Hopefully with experience I can be where he is.”
Wallace has watched Fleetwood closely. “I just love to learn from these guys like Tommy,” Wallace said. “His iron play is incredible, and that tells me my iron play has to be better. I went back and talked to my coaches, and we worked on it. The week after, my iron play was amazing. I basically tried to swing it like Tommy, with that detailed follow through, and I won that week.”
Last year, Wallace set the goal to break into the top 50 on the European Tour. He is hovering just north of that at No. 61. Now, with four European Tour titles and three just this year, Wallace is trying not to change anything.
“I’ve had a brilliant year so far, but I can make it into an outstanding one,” he said. “I’ve got a great opportunity to play against the best players in the world in the next few weeks. If I can play the way I know I can, who knows what can happen? All I have to do is prepare like I always do. If I get into position for contention, I know my head and my heart will take over.”
Wallace paused. Then he continued: “Now, I don’t mind having my back up against the wall. I like the pressure now.”