Catriona Matthew: From the badminton court to Women’s British Open gloryJune 19, 2017 News & Tour
Scotland’s most successful female golfer wasn’t always destined for the fairways. Michael Atkinson finds out how golf won her over…
Sitting down for an in-depth interview with Catriona Matthew, you could reasonably assume that the first subject we would touch upon is golf. But it isn’t.
We are talking about the three-time Solheim Cup winner’s love for badminton.
You may be surprised to learn that the 47-year-old from North Berwick could very well have been wielding a racquet rather than a golf club if she had continued to focus on her number one sport as a teenager.
She says: “It was probably my main sport until I was about 16 or 17. I played badminton, hockey and golf, but badminton was the main one.”
The subject of badminton is raised in our chat because Matthew has just been announced as an ambassador for the World Individual Championships, the flagship event of the global badminton calendar, rivalled only by the Olympic Games. The event will be staged in Glasgow in August.
It may seem an odd role for Matthew, taking on an ambassador role in another sport, but she was a talented player as a youngster, going on to represent Scotland at Under-16 level.
Her position as an ambassador for badminton’s biggest event came about after she met Anne Smillie, Badminton Scotland’s chief executive, at the Scottish Sports Awards dinner last year. After chatting, Matthew agreed to promote the event.
“Anne knew I had been a keen badminton player when I was younger and she asked if I was interested in helping support the event and I was obviously delighted to,” says Matthew.
Matthew understands the role and sees the importance of these events in promoting the sport, and sport in general, to a wider audience and encouraging participation.
She was introduced to badminton as a youngster through playing with her family.
She says: “My mum played and one of my brothers played, so we played a lot together and I got into it that way. It’s obviously a great way to keep fit and during the winter here [in Scotland] it’s great to have an indoor sport. Obviously I liked the competitive nature of it. You show a bit of a promise, play in competitions, that spurs you on and you continue from there.”
However, she became more focused on golf in her late teenage years. She says: “With badminton, I was probably always the last one into the team. I was never the top one. With golf, I started playing in the East Lothian competitions and the Scottish Girls competitions and started winning those and realised that I was probably going to be better at golf than I was at badminton.”
Like badminton, she learnt golf playing with her family – she would regularly play with her parents and two brothers on the North Berwick children’s course. Despite the time she spends abroad, especially on the LPGA Tour, North Berwick is still the place she calls home and where she can be found in between tournaments, juggling her professional life on tour with family life. The balancing act must be difficult, but Matthew is pragmatic.
“I try to do three weeks on and two weeks off, so that I’m not away too much,” she says. “I don’t play as full a schedule now as some of the younger ones. You just adapt to your way of life. Everyone adapts – myself, my husband and the children. You get used to how your family works.”
As an amateur golfer, she certainly won a lot. As a junior, she became Scottish Girls champion in 1986 and the Scottish U21 Stroke Play champion in 1988 and 1989. She went on to win the Scottish Amateur title in 1991, 1993 and 1994. Her 1993 victory came alongside the British Amateur title as well. She was a member of the 1990, 1992 and 1994 Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup teams.
It was at university that she moved to a full focus on golf, attending Stirling University and studying accountancy on a golf scholarship. Obtaining a degree whilst continuing to pursue golf was important to her.
She says: “I always had a degree to fall back on. My mum and dad always wanted me to have that. Making it in professional sport isn’t easy, so it gives you reassurance if it doesn’t quite work out.”
It was the continued success as an amateur that prompted Matthew to turn professional.
“I had won everything at an amateur level. I’d won the Scottish amateur a few times, the British amateur and I had represented Great Britain at the Curtis Cup a few times too,” she adds. “There was really nothing else to do in the amateur game. I felt to test myself against the best, I had to turn professional just to see how good I could be.”
Like on the amateur circuit, it turned out that she could certainly be good. Her professional career has seen her secure six wins on the Ladies European Tour and four wins on the LPGA Tour. But it was her victory at Royal Lytham & St Annes in the 2009 Ricoh Women’s British Open that remains her crowning glory to date. It made her the first player from Scotland to win a women’s Major golf tournament. It was a career highlight for Matthew.
She says: “Outwith team golf, winning the Major has definitely been the highlight. Obviously Graeme was caddying. I had a comfortable lead coming down the last, so it was a great feeling walking down that last hole at Lytham knowing that you’d won it.”
She references Graeme, her caddy at the time. He was more than her caddy, he’s also her husband.
“We met at university and then I went on and turned professional,” she says. “He worked for a couple of years and qualified as an accountant. Then we decided that if he didn’t come out and caddy we wouldn’t see much of each other, so we decided he would caddy for me.
She adds with a wry smile: “It was obviously quite successful so it worked from there.”
Matthew mentions team golf throughout our conversation, not surprisingly, as she has been a key member of the Solheim Cup on several occasions, including in 2013, one of the most significant – it was the first ever European victory on US soil and provided the largest margin of victory in any previous Solheim Cup.
Matthew is the vice-captain of the event later this year. She also represented Britain in the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 when the sport was reinstated.
From Matthew’s perspective, it was an important move for golf. She says: “It helps promote the sport to a far wider audience. Normally with a golf tournament, it’s just golfers that watch it. But I know myself that with the Olympics, you watch sports that you wouldn’t normally follow, so the Olympics showcases golf to a much bigger audience, which can only help in getting more people interested in the game.
“Any sport that is in the Olympics gets so much more funding in many countries and that can only help to promote it as well.”
Securing that interest in the game is necessary as participation in golf is struggling.
Matthew continues: “The biggest challenge is participation, getting youngsters interested in playing golf. There are so many other sports and different things competing for their attention that it’s about trying to get them involved in the game.
“There are more opportunities now for youngsters to try different things which makes it tougher for any one sport. It also perhaps suffers as the game takes too long and is perceived to be outdated. It’s about trying to change the image of the sport, that will make the difference to participation.
“Shorter formats in the winter, perhaps more nine-hole courses, six-hole events – the sport needs to try all these different things and see what happens. It’s about trying to make it easier for people to play and get involved.”
We touch on the continued discrepancy within many sports of prize money between the men’s and women’s games.
She says: “There is still a big gulf between the men’s and the women’s prize money in golf. I think it’s improving.
“Obviously, in an ideal world, you would love to have the same prize money. It is difficult, however, there are not many sports where women can make a living.
“You’re talking about golf and tennis being the main two and then perhaps the very top athletes, the top Olympians.
“It is a shame that there are so few sports where women can make it a profession.
“To be at the top in any profession isn’t easy, you have to work at it, if you’re at the very top in women’s golf you can make a nice living out of it, but that’s really only the very few that can manage that. But I suppose that drives you to work harder.”
Matthew has certainly worked hard and has reached the top in her career, and her influence on the game of golf continues. Her home country of Scotland will host the Solheim Cup in 2019 at Gleneagles.
The 2019 European captaincy would no doubt be a fitting next role as her career continues