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Catholic High Rocket launches professional golf career

Matt Mabrey happy to play in U.S. Open and make golf his full-time job after college

Published: July 21, 2015   
Courtesy University of Tulsa Athletic Department
Matt Mabrey tracks his tee shot in a September 2014 tournament. This summer, Mabrey became the first Catholic High Rocket to qualify for a PGA major tournament.

The employment crunch facing many of today’s college grads is largely lost on Matt Mabrey.

Shortly after his collegiate career wrapped, he nailed the golf equivalent of his first professional interview, qualifying for arguably the nation’s most prestigious tournament — the U.S. Open.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play professional sports, ever since I was little,” he said. “When I was really young I wanted to play professional basketball, but as I got older I got some knee injuries and just kind of got tired of it and started to play golf.”

Mabrey completed his collegiate career at the University of Tulsa this May and walked onto the first tee at golf’s second major a month later. He’s the first graduate of Catholic High in Little Rock to play in a PGA major tournament of which there are four, including the Masters, the British Open and the PGA Championship.

“When I was in junior golf, it seemed like I could win anytime or I could finish 40th and once I got to college I learned the mental aspect of playing hard and being aggressive but also being more consistent.” Matt Mabrey

The “open” in the name means in addition to the invited top pro players, anyone can play in the tournament provided they can qualify. That stipulation eliminates more than it lets in and required Mabrey, 22, to make it through a local and then a sectional tournament in Dallas. In the latter, played June 8, he shot back-to-back rounds of 67 to finish at six under par.

The Open, played at Chambers Bay Golf Club in Puget Sound, Wash., over Father’s Day weekend, capped a busy couple of months for the former parishioner of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, who now makes his home in Tulsa. The run started with a return to his hometown to take the UALR/First Tee Collegiate Classic, played at Little Rock’s Chenal Country Club in March.

“Honestly, my favorite course anywhere is Chenal Country Club. That’s where I grew up playing,” he said. “I really like Bear Den, that’s a tough course and it’s a good one to practice on. It really helped me grow my game.”

In May, he played in the NCAA Men’s Golf Lubbock (Texas) Regional, a tournament sandwiched between the U.S. Open qualifying events. He ends his collegiate career with 24 top-20 finishes in 46 tournaments. He won the 2014 Conference USA Championship his junior season and earned all-conference honors his senior year in the American Athletic Conference.

Dizzying though the ride has been, the smooth-mannered Mabrey remains unfazed, a by-product of the mental toughness he’s developed in his golf game. 

“It’s kind of strange to me that I wasn’t as shocked as I thought I’d be (to qualify),” he said. “It was more, ‘OK, I’ve been picturing this for so long and its actually happening,’ you know? I finally I did it and now I’m going to go play and see what I can do.

“That’s part of the maturity process that happened to me in college. When I was in junior golf, it seemed like I could win anytime or I could finish 40th and once I got to college I learned the mental aspect of playing hard and being aggressive but also being more consistent. That’s the main thing that helped me get better.”

Those skills held up at the Open, as he stayed in contention through two rounds. Some bad bounces on no. 11 ultimately kept him from playing on the weekend — he missed the cut by just three strokes — but it was valuable on-the-job experience.

“I played OK; I had a couple holes I kind of screwed up pretty bad and that happens to a lot of guys at the U.S. Open,” he said. “I left quite a few shots out there, so I came away from it feeling like I could compete with those guys. It really helped me with my confidence. I went out the next week and made the cut on a tour event and played pretty well.”

While understandably focused on the business at hand, he also had a memorable fan moment when he met his golf idol Ernie Els, the smooth-swinging South African who holds two U.S. Open titles and 70 professional wins worldwide.

“I don’t really get starstruck unless I see a musician like George Strait or somebody, but the one guy who was my hero growing up was Ernie Els,” he said. “I thought I’m not going to go around and introduce myself to people, but if I see Ernie I’m going to do it and I did. We talked for a bit and it was a really cool experience.”

Mabrey, who will graduate from Tulsa in December with a degree in exercise and sports science, now settles into a routine few get to experience, with golf his full-time job. He puts in daily practice and faces a slate of tournaments ahead of him as he works toward earning his PGA Tour card and whatever the game may hold.

“Practicing golf is kind of soothing; I love being outside and I just enjoy waking up and being able to go out there and practice hitting golf shots all day,” he said.

“Traveling gets a little exhausting, driving or flying out all over the place, but when I’m out on the golf course, it’s all worth it. I just love competing and competing with myself. That’s always a challenge that just never gets old.”

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