IT IS the second day of July this year and the local qualifying rounds for the forthcoming Open Championship at Muirfield are taking place at North Berwick. Halfway through the 36-hole proceedings a small crowd has gathered around the scoreboard next to the famous old clubhouse. With all eyes on the numbers, hardly anyone notices the woman with the pushchair, two small children and groceries in a supermarket bag as she walks past. And only one person openly recognises her.
Such is the level of “fame” enjoyed by Scotland’s highest-ranked golfer, our most recent major champion and the woman who last month holed the winning putt – for the second time in her career – in the biennial Solheim Cup matches between Europe and the United States.
Only two days before that stroll down the high street of her hometown, in fact, Catriona Matthew finished tied 15th in the US Women’s Open.
It is hard, given how well she plays the game that has been her professional life, not to wonder just what Matthew needs to do to attain the level of celebrity enjoyed by, say, our most famous non-major winner, Colin Montgomerie. It is a comparison that is both stark and highlights the too-often warped priorities of sport. Being capable of well-documented over-bearing boorishness and “ignorance” of golf’s admittedly esoteric rules is apparently more attractive to society, sponsors and media than quiet, unassuming excellence at the highest level.
“Catriona is one of the most admired players on the LPGA Tour,” says former LPGA star Dottie Pepper, an assistant captain on the US side at the recent Solheim. “She is sort of a ‘silent assassin’. She arrives, does her thing without really getting noticed that much, yet she always seems to be up there somewhere. She’s so impressive in that respect.”
Which is not to say Mrs Matthew – “Beany” to all who know her – is complaining at her lot. Given the placid nature of her personality and on-course temperament, one perfect for the playing of competitive golf under pressure, the 44-year old former British Women’s Open champion is more than happy with the way things are. Indeed, as far as her still-improving game is concerned, things have never been better for the world No.9.
Only last weekend, Matthew added a second Ladies Scottish Open title to her bulging resume. This season alone has seen her lose out in a play-off for what would have been a second major, the LPGA Championship and, perhaps even more encouragingly, improve her already impressive reputation for consistency.
“If you look at Beany swing, you think she doesn’t hit the ball that far,” adds Pepper. “But, when you look at her shots, they are out there a very long way. And they fly on a trajectory that works when it is calm or windy. I don’t think I have ever seen her hit a shot where she has finished off balance. That tells me she is never trying to do something she knows she can’t do.
“She wears people out with that aspect of her game. She never makes silly mistakes trying to play ‘hero’ golf.”
It is no surprise to hear that Matthew was a popular source of advice for the younger members of the European side which recorded its first-ever victory on American soil last month. Or that a notable feature of the record eight-point win was the sight of Matthew partnering a succession of Solheim rookies. European skipper Liselotte Neumann leaned heavily on the oldest member of her generally inexperienced side.
“It was great fun,” says Matthew, who this week will compete in the fifth and final major of the season, the Evian Masters in France.
“To win out there was amazing. And we absolutely thrashed them. It was a great team atmosphere, everyone got on well. Having so many rookies kept things fresh. And no, I didn’t feel that old surrounded by so many youngsters.
“The key was the Saturday afternoon four-balls. When we won those 4-0 it was almost all over. As for my own performance, I played OK but never really got to grips with the greens. So I was steady without being stunning. But I was pleased to get two good halves, given that I wasn’t making much. That was the difference between this year and 2011. At Killeen Castle I holed more putts. And that’s what match play is all about, especially at such a high level.”
Still, recent times haven’t brought too many disappointments for the three-times Scottish Amateur champion. Working with swing coach Kevin Craggs, Matthew is, in her forties, a better golfer than she has ever been.
“I would say that I have improved in all aspects of the game under Kevin’s guidance,” she continues. “But my bad golf and my bad shots are definitely better. My driving has also been good these last few years – golf is a lot easier when you’re playing from the fairway. So I don’t feel 44.
“My natural shot has always been a little draw. But I now have a wee fade I can hit. That shot has helped me, especially in the majors where the greens are firmer and the pins are tucked away a bit more. My approach shots land a little softer than they used to.
“My swing is tidier and less prone to faults. I’ve been working hard on the basics but also on getting my right elbow a little closer to my side on the way back. That helps me get the club a little ‘shallower’ on the way down. Before, I was prone to being a little steep coming into the ball.”
There is more to it than mere technique, of course. As Matthew is quick to acknowledge, her desire to compete still burns brightly inside her, albeit that time away from her daughters Katie and Sophie and now part-time caddie, husband Graeme, is difficult for all concerned.
“I’ve always been competitive,” she says. “I hate being beaten. So that drives me on. Plus, if I’m going to be away from my family for long periods – which isn’t easy – I might as well give it everything. There is no point in being half-hearted. There are too many people out there trying to beat me. So I have given it my all. My aim each week is to be in contention and have a chance to win. That’s my goal.”
When she is finally done, of course, Matthew is surely a shoo-in for a future Solheim Cup captaincy. No one would command more respect. But that is for the future. “I’m enjoying the fact that I have improved,” she admits. “I certainly haven’t reached the stage where I think I can’t compete with the very best. When I do, I’ll phase myself out quietly. I’m not there yet though. I’ve never been one to say I’ll finish at a certain age, so my plan is to take each year as it comes. But making the Olympic team for Rio in 2016 is a goal, that is driving me on.”
Well, that and the kitchen floor she was mopping before and after the interview that formed the bulk of this article. Oh, the glamour of it all.