[PHOTO: Sean M. Haffey]
There were times in Matthieu Pavon’s life when it seemed as though he felt like an outsider in any sport he tried, and that’s a tough place to be when your family is obsessed with anything involving a ball. Pavon’s grandfather and father were professional soccer players, with his dad playing 14 years in France’s top division and later coaching. Mum is a golf instructor. But soccer became a source of disappointment because of unreal expectations on the kid of a pro. People talked “trash” about him. “That was a tough time,” Pavon recalls.
And when Pavon then took up golf in his teens, he practised infrequently and, by his estimate, never rose above about 800th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. “Nobody was really caring of me, never played for the French team,” he says. “They were not really looking at me, which I understand.”
Pavon nearly gave up the game before turning pro because he had the yips, and once he got those fixed, he still carpet-bagged across Europe, first on the mini-tours and then the DP World Tour, where he needed 185 starts before getting his first victory last year in Spain.
The beauty, Pavon says now, of being the overlooked underdog meant he rarely burdened himself with pressure. Even when he ventured to the US this year for his rookie season on the PGA Tour – a move facilitated by the circuit’s opening up tour cards to more European players – Pavon contends he had zero expectations. He was just happy to in a place that he loves so much he jokes that he “feels like an American somehow”.
As for feeling accepted and admired, Pavon has discovered his life’s sweet spot. In the span of three months, he now has won on the two biggest golf tours in the world, adding to the DP victory by pulling off his maiden PGA Tour win at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Pressed to the very end by fellow DPWT graduate Nicolai Hojgaard, Pavon recovered from driving into a bunker at the 18th and a third shot from the rough by making an eight-foot birdie putt to shoot a three-under par 69 for a 13-under total. He was one shot better than Hojgaard, who shot 70 and heightened the drama at the last by barely missing a 49-foot eagle roll that would have forced a playoff.
The PGA Tour will recognise Pavon as the first Frenchman to win a tournament, though there will be some debate there. French-born Martin Trainer won the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open in 2019, but he was recognised as an American because of his dual citizenship. Trainer now competes under the French flag.
Even after posing with the Farmers Open Torrey Pines tree trophy and winner’s surfboard, Pavon was in disbelief. “It feels like we have another round to play tomorrow because we’re only [on] Saturday,” he said with a grin of the third year of an early finish for the Farmers, so it doesn’t go up against the NFL conference championship games.
In his winner’s press conference, Pavon exuded being deeply happy and genuinely grateful.
“[This] is special. I can’t thank the PGA Tour enough to give us the opportunity to come from Europe and compete here in America against the best players in the world,” he said. “That’s always been the dream for me. I got finally a shot, and I took it. It’s a dream come true and it’s a little bit hard to believe.”
The spoils of the victory are plentiful, beyond the $US1.62 million first-place cheque. Pavon earned a place in next week’s third signature event of the season at Pebble Beach, as well as starts in all four majors. Just as meaningful, he moves into a strong position to represent France this year in a home Olympics in Paris. “That’s big; Olympics is huge,” he said.
On a gorgeous, sunny day on the cliffs of La Jolla, the South course was far more gettable than in the third round, with the scoring average about one-and-a-half strokes easier than the day before. That opened daylight for some charging, with Tony Finau making noise with a front-nine 32 (though he would ultimately finish T-6) and Nate Lashley posting an early five-under 67 that tied for the best score of the day. Lashley ended up tying for third with rookie Jake Knapp (69) and third-round leader Stephan Jaeger, who fell out of the lead with a bogey on the 12th hole, shot 72 and couldn’t capture a first tour win that he’s sought in 129 starts.
Pavon essentially was the Jaeger of Europe before last October. He’d made 184 appearances on the Old World circuit until his impressive breakthrough triumph in the Open de Espana, where he led wire-to-wire. He backed that up by birdieing the final four holes in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to be one of 10 players to secure their PGA Tour cards for 2024.
“And since then, I’m like on a cloud, I’m flying. It’s incredible,” Pavon said. “After I just came here in America, just trying to enjoy every moment.” He added, “To be fair, I had almost no pressure coming, playing in America. It’s like it’s just an opportunity. If I fail, I could just go back in Europe and I start again. So, it was just like trying to do your best every day, enjoy every moment because they are special ones.”
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In a Farmers field loaded with players who have competed at Torrey Pines for years, Pavon seemed at a huge disadvantage at the outset since he was seeing it for the first time. Or, barely seeing it. When he arrived on Monday, he had to wait to practise because of heavy rain, and when he finally got out, thick fog enveloped the South course. “Couldn’t see 100 yards in front of me,” said Pavon, who walked 18 holes with his putter and three balls to get a feel for the greens. When he returned to the South for Thursday’s second round, after scoring 69 on slightly easier North course, Pavon lit up the two-time US Open track by making eight birdies in shooting 65.
Continuing on a theme, Pavon said, “It feels like when you don’t really know what you’re going to be faced and you don’t have any expectation.”
The third round was more of a struggle, with Pavon scoring 72, and then he three-putted for bogey to open the final round. But he was impressive after that. He made a couple of big saves, including draining a 23-foot par putt at the 16th, which became notable when he pulled a three-foot par putt on 17 for bogey to open a gap for his chasers.
Throughout the day, Pavon said he sought peace and encouragement from messages he keeps for himself in his yardage book. “Since I won in Spain last year, I write down some notes in my book which bring me back to the present moment,” he said. “ You know how it is on the golf course, sometimes your head flies away a little bit and you have to get back to the present moment to refocus yourself. Sentences like they are telling me why I play golf, why I’m here… They give me a little extra confidence.”
Pavon is clearly a man of letters. He also sports a tattoo in English on his right hand that reads, “The saliva that flows now will become the tears of joy tomorrow.” The use of “saliva” is a curiosity, but basically means “sweat”.
The man and the golfer have been a work in progress. How sweet it must be to finally know he belongs.