Interview: Catriona Matthew unconcerned by Rio Olympics risk

Unlike other golfers Matthew can't wait to go to Olympics even though a mosquito bit her on a previous visit to Brazil

Catriona Matthew at home in North Berwick. Picture: Greg Macvean
Catriona Matthew at home in North Berwick. Picture: Greg Macvean

The first I see of the woman golfer who answers her door in North Berwick on the perfect afternoon for spoiling a good walk are her toes. Each nail is painted a different colour, pink and purple and yellow, and covered with sparkles.

For a moment I’m thinking I must have the wrong house, that perhaps one of the new breed of swinging gals lives here. You might know the type. Scouring the internet for something else entirely (yeah, yeah), they’ll suddenly pop up. The other day I was visiting my favourite site devoted to Scotland’s most under-appreciated municipal buildings when a handstanding, back-flipping woman golfer beckoned me over to Twitter to study selfies of her getting dolled up for the night or, alternatively, not wearing very much at all.

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But this is Catriona Matthew right enough. Dressed in shorts and sandals and sporting the deep, no-need-to-try-hard suntan which golfers only share with foreign correspondents, she introduces her daughters, Katie, nine, and seven-year-old Sophie, who might well have been responsible for the brazen paint-job. Matthew’s a golfer, a mum, a no-nonsense Scot and someone who knows what it’s like to be hospitalised after being bitten by a Brazilian mosquito. Golf’s highly photogenic “birdies” – what the small, funny papers call them – are all well and good for a sport with a fusty image and falling participation numbers, but right now it also needs people like Matthew.

While the men are being scared away by the Zika virus from participating in golf’s return to the Olympics, or, as in Rory McIlroy’s case are admitting they simply can’t be bothered, the world’s top women have no such qualms about playing in Rio. Matthew, who’ll turn 47 a few days after the Games close, is simply thrilled to have the chance to become an Olympian.

“I’m very excited about it,” she says. “It was a big goal this year to try and make Team GB. Where I am in my career, this was probably going to be my only chance to get to an Olympics and I can hardly wait.”

Contrast this with McIlroy’s stance: “I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game … to get other people into it. I got into golf to win major championships.” He says he’ll watch the Olympics on TV, but probably not the golf, more likely the athletics and the swimming – “the stuff that matters”. Ouch.

Matthew has to be coaxed into a response to this. Sitting in a room with its sumptuous view of the 18th fairway of North Berwick’s West Links and the Bass Rock beyond it, she’s not one of the game’s relentless self-publicists or rent-a-quote types. “Well,” she says finally, “I think the Games can be great for golf and the women’s game especially. But you always have to respect someone else’s opinion, even if it differs from yours, and at least Rory is being upfront: so many people don’t say what they’re actually thinking. But it’s sad [that none of the top four men will be at the Olympics]. When you see that athletes in other sports are not pulling out, it’s disappointing for golf.”

Was she not concerned about the health issues? “Not really. I’m older and not planning to have any more children. It’ll be winter when we’re in Brazil and so not really the mosquito season.” Matthew’s view has been consistently backed by the World Health Organisation, whose advice is that the risk of Zika infection is minimal. Nevertheless, Jordan Spieth is sufficiently worried to have added his name to the withdrawals.

Justin Rose, Brazil-bound, points out that golfers will spend more time outdoors and near water than other athletes but still thinks Zika will be a “non-event”. “Admittedly you just don’t know,” adds Matthew. “But golfers play right across Asia without any problem. They go to Australia where every animal seems to be ‘Most deadly…’” Then she says, matter-of-factly: “The last time I played in Brazil I was bitten by a mosquito and ended up in hospital. I don’t know what they gave me for it but I survived.”

Every time Matthew journeys to Brazil it’s eventful. The mosquito incident came in 2010 as she was defending the Brasil Cup she won the previous year. And 2009’s Brazilian’s drama, negotiated without too much fuss? Oh, just that she was five months pregnant with Sophie. No biggie.

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Matthew’s husband Graeme brings us tea as we chat. He used to be her caddie until the girls reached school age; now he stays at home to look after them while she golfs round the world. This is her 22nd year on the LGPA Tour, a remarkable story which she relates quietly and unflashily, her usual style out on the course, too.

“It’s a balancing act between the golf and being a mum,” she explains. “Because of the family I maybe play 23 tournaments every year while most of the other girls will do 30. I’m just back from California and, because the girls are off school, this will be a week at home. I probably won’t pick up a club; in fact, they’d be fizzing if I did.”

Next week, though, Matthew will be competing at the Scottish Open at Dundonald and, the week after that, the British Open at Woburn. “The whole family used to come with me when I played. Katie just about remembers all that hotel living.” Maybe their mum’s occupation marks them out as exotic among their school-chums; the girls though are pretty cool about this. “Katie is preoccupied with her dancing but they both know the rules of golf and tell me off if I score too many bogeys.”

When Matthew was their age, as the youngest of a sporty family, she was the tomboyish wee sister of her two brothers, her competitive instincts developed on the children’s course in North Berwick, always striving to beat the boys and eventually succeeding. And when she was precisely Katie’s age she watched the Moscow Olympics on TV. “I remember Daley Thompson and, of course, Allan Wells. But I never thought my life would become sport and I certainly never dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics.”

Matthew studied accountancy at Stirling University and can’t imagine what a life in numbers would have been like, beyond simple scorecard arithmetic. “Golf has taken me right round the world; I think I would have hated being stuck in an office.” She was attracted to Stirling by its golf scholarships, then quite rare, as was Graeme, who’d been Scottish Boys’ Strokeplay champion. It was when Matthew scooped the Scottish and British amateur titles in the same year that she decided to try going pro. “I’ve been lucky that it worked out,” she says with typical understatement.

Used to encountering sportsmen and women with a little bit more swank – and sometimes a lot more – I have to remind myself that Matthew is indeed Scotland’s greatest woman golfer. Catriona Ronaldo she is not. But in 2009 she became the first Scot to have her name engraved on one of the four majors when she won the Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

That was quite a year. Matthew turned 40, gave birth, escaped a fire. Regarding the latter, I can think of many who would relish recounting such a drama but the details have to be teased out of her. The night before the Evian Masters she was asleep in her hotel in the French Alps while Graeme was on the balcony, answering emails. “I was woken by what sounded like heavy rain and called out to Graeme. ‘It’s not rain,’ he said and went to investigate.” The building was ablaze. “We ran out shouting ‘Fire!’ because there had been no alarm.”

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That must have been terrifying, I say. “I suppose it was a bit frightening. One of the other competitors couldn’t get out in time so she had to throw down her mattress and jump. Graeme burned his feet running through the flames because in our rush we didn’t put on shoes. He had to go to hospital so I needed a new caddie.” The hotel was razed to the ground.

Fortunately, Katie and new-born Sophie didn’t share in that near-death experience as she and her big sister were being looked after back in North Berwick by Matthew’s parents. “Sophie had colic and so hadn’t slept for eight weeks.” By the time the British Open came round she was still only 11 weeks old.

Matthew continued to play through both her pregnancies, getting to five and a half months with Katie before severe cramp in her legs forced her to quit a tournament in Ohio. And the Brasil Cup wasn’t her last while pregnant with Sophie, although she admits the extreme heat she found in Singapore was “pretty tortuous”. “I always played pretty well when I was having the girls,” she smiles. “Perhaps we should have started the family earlier.”

Rather than being an anxious mum at Lytham, Matthew remembers feeling very calm on the first tee. “It was an odd sensation. Obviously I was missing my wee girl but I also felt relaxed. I went into that tournament thinking I’d be happy just to make the cut, but on the back nine of my second round I shot eagle, eagle, birdie, birdie, par, birdie, birdie, bogey, par. Then I managed to hang on for the rest of the tournament. It would be great to have that feeling every time I play but that was a funny old year…”

Blaze, birth and not forgetting that Brazilian mosquito – none funnier. She neglects to mention, too, that her championship performance included a hole-in-one.

We talk about Muirfield, just up the road, the decision not to widen membership to women, the worldwide condemnation which followed – and the recent decision to hold a second vote. Once again Matthew plays it pretty straight: “I think some who voted not to allow women members didn’t appreciate, in giving up the opportunity to host the Open, the effect this would have on the community. Hopefully, they’ll now change their minds.”

What about the glamorisation of the women’s game and the coverage – in magazines and on websites to which dear old Henry Longhurst probably wouldn’t subscribe were he still alive – which scans the rough and bunkers for “The hottest girls in golf”? “Each to their own,” she says. “The women’s tour is a small scene but everyone – the younger girls and the older ones like me – get on well.” Exposure – and here we’re talking televised coverage of the majors – has increased and Matthew is grateful for the higher profile, however it’s been achieved. “The women’s game is in great shape right now. The likes of Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson are super talents.”

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Matthew knew when the children came along her ambitions would have to be reduced but she accepted this. “I reckoned that getting into the top five in the world was probably not going to be possible, simply through not playing enough. But I’m not complaining. I’ve been lucky to have such a supportive husband who made sure he qualified from uni so he could go to work as an accountant in case I didn’t make it as a pro. Then Graeme was willing to caddie for me for 16 years – and put up with the fact that, in that working relationship, nothing is ever the golfer’s fault – so that we could see each other, otherwise we just wouldn’t.”

But if this sounds like Matthew getting ready to put the clubs away, it’s not. “Golf puts a strain on the family and I won’t want to miss too much more of the girls growing up but I’m going to try to keep playing while I still feel competitive. The beauty of golf is that, while in many other sports you’d be finished by your mid-30s, I feel at 46 that I can still be competitive against Lydia Ko at 19. I still feel I’m good enough to beat everyone else out there. Perhaps not week-in, week-out, but every once in awhile for sure.”

So could that be down Rio way? “Win the Olympics? Of course I think I could, otherwise there’s no point in playing.” Come home with the gold medal and that would surely be cause for a handstand, maybe even a back-flip, too.