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Act of compassion leads to a spot at Bay Hill for Matthews

ORLANDO, Fla. – Brandon Matthews makes his PGA Tour debut this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, all because of a putt he missed last November in the Argentine Open.

And the invitation to Bay Hill had nothing to do with the putt.

Matthews faced an 8-foot putt to extend a sudden-death playoff in the PGA Tour Latinoamerica event. A victory would mean a spot in the British Open and, perhaps more importantly to his career, graduation to the Korn Ferry Tour.

A fan screamed out in the middle of his stroke, and Matthews missed. He turned around in disbelief at such behavior, only to learn it was a middle-aged man with Down syndrome. Moments later, Matthews consoled the fan with a hug and signed a glove for him.

“I was frustrated at first, didn't understand the full circumstances behind it,” Matthews said Tuesday. “But once I did, it was a pretty easy situation for me to handle.”

His mother used to work in group homes. His best friend's sister has Down syndrome. He knows what the chromosomal disorder involves.

“I saw it on a daily basis and I just kind of have a special place in my heart for it,” Matthews said.

The moment got plenty of traction on social media and to organizers of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. They offered him an exemption to the tournament — Matthews, like Palmer, is from Pennsylvania — for a gesture symbolic of the King.

Matthews said he thought nothing of the moment, even when a friend told him it would be seen everywhere.

“I said: ‘No, it’s not. We're in Buenos Aires. Nothing is going to come of this,'” he said. “I'm just happy I was able to make this guy happy and put a smile on his face. I had no idea it was going to get as big as it did.”

And now he tees it up alongside Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Phil Mickelson.

Matthews, who played at Temple, has spent the last few years on the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. He played once on the European Tour at the Porsche Open.

The PGA Tour Latinoamerica begins this week in Mexico. Matthews wants to make the most of his opportunity at Bay Hill.

“I'm just so happy to be here,” he said. “I didn't think I was going to get any reaction to what happened, so just to be sitting here today, to be able to compete this week is something that's really special that I'm very thankful for.”

HALL OF FAME

Tiger Woods and former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem are among 10 finalists who will be voted on next week for the World Golf Hall of Fame class of 2021.

Woods was among four finalists from the male category that include three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, British Open champion and architect Tom Weiskopf, and the late U.S. Open champion Johnny Farrell.

Four women nominated as finalists are Dottie Pepper, Sandra Palmer, Beverly Hanson and Susie Maxwell Berning. Finchem and Marion Hollins, the U.S. Women's Amateur champion involved in building Cypress Point and Pasatiempo, were nominated as contributors, which replaces the Veteran's category and Lifetime Achievement category.

The finalists were determined by a nominating committee of 26 people, including six Hall of Famers and 10 media members.

A 20-member selection committee, comprising Hall of Fame members, media and leaders of major golf organizations, will make the final selections.

SCHEDULE CHANGES

The PGA Tour this year has 14 tournaments at the start of the year leading to the Masters. With the tour not starting until Jan. 7 next year in Hawaii, that leaves only 13 weeks before the Masters.

Something has to give.

The Valspar Championship is expected to move from March to April. Meanwhile, the Honda Classic is moving next year to the week after The Players Championship, instead of leading off the Florida swing.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill would start the Florida swing.

That means the schedule next year would go Mexico City, Bay Hill, The Players Championship, Honda Classic, Dell Match Play and the Valero Texas Open in the weeks leading to Augusta National.

That would be followed by Hilton Head, New Orleans and the Valspar Championship.

Either way, players have some tough choices, just like this year.

Brooks Koepka was the only top 10 player at Honda, while Bay Hill has six of the top 10. Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas are to join Koepka in two weeks at the Valspar Championship. Still to be determined is how many sign up for the 64-man field at the Match Play — and where Tiger Woods plays next.

US OPEN BRANDING

The U.S. Open touched on the identity that sets it apart from other majors when it developed a new brand for this year called “From Many, One.”

Yes, it's known as the toughest test of golf. It doesn't always feel that way, particularly after relatively calm, soft conditions at Pebble Beach last year and record scores under par at Erin Hills.

But it's the most democratic of all majors, with roughly half of the field going through a 36-hole qualifier. The campaign reached out to a group that included past USGA champions, other players, fans, media and those involved with running its championships. The goal was to find out what makes the U.S. Open special.

“From Many, One,” speaks to nearly 10,000 players who sign up for the U.S. Open, which is whittled down through 18-hole qualifiers, and then 36-hole qualifiers to reach the 156-man field.

“The U.S. Open is more than a golf event, it’s more than a test or evaluation, it’s an experience that brings people together to share in the electricity that comes from players pushing themselves beyond their limits to achieve their dreams,” said Mike Davis, chief executive of the USGA.

PRESIDENTS CUP BOUNCE

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but players who took part in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne are on a roll.

Since the matches ended on Dec. 15, seven players from the U.S. and International teams have won the 10 tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule. The latest was Sungjae Im in the Honda Classic after going 3-1-1 at Royal Melbourne.

From the International team, Cameron Smith (Sony Open) won his first PGA Tour event, Adam Scott (Genesis Invitational) won his first PGA Tour event in nearly four years and Marc Leishman (Torrey Pines) won for the first time since 2018.

For the Americans, Justin Thomas won the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Patrick Reed won the Mexico Championship and Webb Simpson won the Phoenix Open.

DIVOTS

Stu Francis was elected president of the USGA at its annual meeting last weekend and will serve a three-year term. He is the 66th president. ... The USGA says the gold medal awarded to the U.S. Women's Open champions will be renamed the Mickey Wright Medal starting this year. Wright, who died Feb. 17, is a four-time champion. The men's U.S. Open champion medal is named after Jack Nicklaus. ... Bernhard Langer now has 100 top-3 finishes on the PGA Tour Champions, second only to Hale Irwin (111). ... The Japan LPGA is the latest tour affected by the coronavirus. The season was to begin this week with the Daikin Orchid Ladies Golf Tournament. The tour said it was canceled after the Japanese government called for major sporting and cultural events to be called off during the first two weeks of March.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Martin Trainer is listed as the defending champion for the third straight week — Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour (he won in 2019), El Bosque Real Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour (last played in 2018) and the Estrella del Mar Open on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica (last played in 2016 as the Mazatlan Open).

FINAL WORD

"Wherever I am, in a hotel or wherever, I feel like this is going to be one of the happiest nights of my life." — Sungjae Im, on how he planned to celebrate winning the Honda Classic for his first PGA Tour victory.