First, though, the 25-year-old Pennsylvania native stalked back to the locker room Sunday at the Argentine Open in Buenos Aires, frustrated at what he believed was an act of “pure disrespect” that helped his opponent, Ricardo Celia, win the tournament and gain the coveted berth in the 2020 British Open.
Matthews thought someone had “intentionally yelled out,” and he had responded by motioning and glaring at the gallery, but he soon learned he was “totally wrong.”
The tournament’s director, Claudio Rivas, approached him in the locker room and explained that the source of the unfortunately timed outburst was a middle-aged man with Down syndrome.
In a phone interview with The Washington Post from his home in Tequesta, Fla., Matthews said that as soon as he was apprised of the situation, in which “someone with Down syndrome couldn’t control their emotions,” he “felt so terrible that I even reacted that way.”
“Immediately I said to [Rivas], ‘Can you please find that guy and take me to him?’ ”
Matthews signed a glove and a ball, and upon approaching the fan, “I was greeted with a big hug and a big smile.” The moment quickly went viral, but for Matthews it was about “putting a smile on someone’s face and making an impact on someone’s life.”
While growing up in a small town near Scranton, Pa., Matthews’s best friend had a sister with Down syndrome, and he “spent countless hours around” her. In addition, his mother worked for a time as a manager of group homes for people with mental disabilities.
“I grew up around people with mental disabilities ever since I was a little kid, so I know how special these people are,” he said. “I knew how much of an impact on that person’s life a simple thing like I did could do, and seeing his reaction to me going up to him, and him just reaching out his arms and giving me a big hug with a smile — that really made my entire week, if not year, if not decade, if not life.
“It was one of those things that just brings a huge smile to your face, and you’re just glad that you can make somebody feel good like that.”
Matthews said his primary motivation in seeking out the fan was “just to make sure that he was in a good state of mind and was enjoying the golf and wasn’t feeling bad about the situation.” Given that his command of Spanish, as he said with a chuckle, “isn’t really that great,” Matthews was grateful that Rivas was on hand to help translate the exchange.
“He was very happy,” Rivas said of the fan (via GolfChannel.com), who was identified only as a man named Juan.
Of Matthews’s reaction when Rivas first told him the outburst came from a person with Down syndrome, the tournament director said “his face changed” and he “almost broke into tears.”
After attending Temple, where he majored in adult and organizational development, Matthews turned pro in the fall of 2016, and he first made his mark the following year on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica. He “graduated” from that circuit to the Korn Ferry Tour, where he played the past two full seasons with other golfers hoping to climb a couple of more rungs and reach the PGA Tour.
However, in “kind of a tough year” that included swing changes, he only made the cut in four of 21 Korn Ferry Tour events this year and lost his card, so he returned recently to the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, just trying to “regain some status, somewhere.”
Through two events held in Argentina, Matthews played well, posting a pair of top-10 finishes and securing his place on the Latin American tour next year. He said that having gone through a “slump” and “come out on the other side better and stronger,” he now has a level of confidence that’s “greater than anything that I have previously felt.”
That confidence showed in Buenos Aires, with only one bogey in his final 45 holes and birdies on the 17th and 18th holes Sunday to force the playoff. Wryly acknowledging that having “a couple-minute walk between every shot” provides some time “for your mind to drift,” Matthews said that as he battled Celia he couldn’t help but give some thought to the possibility of playing in the British Open next year.
“Unfortunately it just wasn’t meant to be,” he said, “but I did a lot of great things this week. You know, I’m still 25 years old, so there can be a lot of Opens in my future if it’s not going to be next year, and there’s a lot ahead that I have to look forward to and get excited for.”
As for the emotions stirred in so many golf fans by his gesture Sunday, Matthews said he was “kind of taken aback,” having had “zero idea that anything was going to come of it.” He added, “I didn’t even know any pictures were taken of it.”
“It’s just been crazy — I never expected this to blow up like it did,” Matthews said. “But the biggest thing for me in all of this is just hoping that people would do the same thing, you know? Because I didn’t think twice about it. That’s what I knew I had to do.
“So I just hope that there’s many people out there that would do the same.”