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Len Mattiace fell victim to 17 in 1998, but it didn’t break his spirit

Len Mattiace fell victim to 17 in 1998, but it didn’t break his spirit

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Joyce Mattiace was wheelchair-bound.

Her cancer had robbed her of the ability to walk or speak clearly, so the family communicated with her through notes passed back and forth.

But when her son Len Mattiace walked out of the scoring trailer just off the 18th green of the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 29, 1998, minutes after signing a card in the final round of the Players Championship that included the dreaded “snowman” at the par-3 17th hole, he bent down to give his mother a kiss and heard one powerful word.

Mustering all the strength she had, Joyce told her son, “proud.”

What’s a couple of water balls in front of thousands of fans and millions of TV viewers matter when it comes to that?

What does losing a chance to win the PGA Tour’s marquee tournament matter?

First, tied for fifth, dead last … what does any of it matter when your mother loves you unconditionally at your lowest moment?

“The more time has gone by, the more that has meant to me,” Mattiace said.

This is the story of two numbers, 17 and 8.

It’s also the story of a family’s love and one bad hole on national TV that only exposed one thing: a heart as big as the Island Green.

A golfing family

It’s been 25 years since Len Mattiace stood on the 17th tee of the Stadium Course, one shot off the Players lead held by Justin Leonard and nine — count ’em, nine — birdies on his scorecard through 16 holes.

It was a glorious spring day and the Stadium Course galleries began swelling around Mattice wherever he went, getting louder and more enthusiastic with every putt he dropped and every step up the leaderboard he climbed.

Two holes remained — the two most dangerous holes in professional golf.

“The crowd was just roaring,” said Barry Craig, who coached Mattiace on the Nease golf team and was later the Bartram Trail athletic director. “He always showed a lot of emotion when he played well and people were feeding off that. And when he birdied No. 16, everyone was really getting jacked up.”

It was the second start Mattiace made in the Players, the culmination of a journey that began when his father Lou moved the family from New York to take advantage of the year-round weather and nurture the golf games of his three sons, Ken, Bob and Len.

All three were regulars at Ponte Vedra courses — the Stadium, Dye’s Valley, the Sawgrass Country Club (where the family lived) and Oak Bridge (now The Yards).

Ken and Bob Mattiace…


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