‘Giving the underdog a chance’: Former EKU pitcher to make PGA Tour debut at Barbasol

·9 min read

Matt Harris doesn’t know where to begin when describing his golf odyssey.

After listening to him try and piece it together for more than 35 minutes, it’s hard to fault him.

Harris has never received a formal golf lesson in his life, and his sport of choice growing up was baseball. He was a prolific pitcher who twice earned all-city honors at Henry Clay High School in Lexington before spending four seasons as a pitcher at Eastern Kentucky from 2009 through 2012.

But sometime along the way, something clicked for Harris on the course. He discovered a seemingly natural ability to be a scratch golfer, and he fell in love with “the hardest game in the world.”

With the help of a financial backer, Harris went to South Florida and grinded out the existence of a golfer harboring professional hopes, playing mini-tour events and Monday qualifiers.

That context only begins to communicate what this week will mean to Harris.

He’s in the field for this week’s Barbasol Championship ⁠— the annual PGA Tour event held at Champions at Keene Trace in Nicholasville ⁠— as an exemption into the tournament.

The winner at the Barbasol gets a spot in the 150th playing of The Open Championship, but just making the cut will bring Harris athletic and financial validation that his golf journey has largely lacked thus far.

It’s a chance that will come in front of family and friends, and at a course he’s played “a million times.”

One of the most improbable journeys to the PGA Tour will have its crowning moment Thursday, and Matt Harris intends to make the most of it.

“They’re kind of giving the underdog a chance,” Harris said.

“I didn’t ever have any instruction or coaching or anything, just took to it and loved it and wanted to keep playing,” Matt Harris said of attempting to make golf a career.
“I didn’t ever have any instruction or coaching or anything, just took to it and loved it and wanted to keep playing,” Matt Harris said of attempting to make golf a career.

From the baseball diamond to the golf course

For the longest time, Harris was a baseball player, and his connection to golf came mainly through family.

“The kind of old school of thought was the golf swing was going to mess up my baseball swing, so I never really got into that,” Harris recalled. “I have some brief memories of playing a few times a year with my grandfather out at Lexington Country Club. He started out teaching me the absolute basics of swinging easy and keeping your head still and things, but I really started to pick (golf) up more in college when I became a pitcher only.”

After nearly two decades of playing baseball, Harris was done with the sport.

He was self-aware enough to realize he was likely never going to play in MLB (despite a decent college career), and Harris turned down the chance to play independent baseball.

“I was a weekend golfer at that point, but all of a sudden I realized I’m a scratch golfer pretty easily. I didn’t ever have any instruction or coaching or anything, just took to it and loved it and wanted to keep playing,” Harris said. “I was fresh out of college and working jobs, wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with my life, working different jobs that I didn’t like and all I could think about was wanting to get out in the afternoon and play golf.”

Matt Harris was 12-17 with a 6.37 ERA and four saves in four seasons at Eastern Kentucky.
Matt Harris was 12-17 with a 6.37 ERA and four saves in four seasons at Eastern Kentucky.

That’s how the dream began.

Someone Harris worked for took note of his potential golf talent and provided financial backing for Harris to try and make it in golf.

Before he moved to Florida and began mini-tour life, Harris had only played in one competitive tournament: The 2017 Kentucky Open (Harris finished tied for 33rd in the amateur division).

Once Harris began playing on circuits like the Minor League Golf Tour in late 2017, each event offered a learning experience as he played alongside PGA and Korn Ferry Tour (the PGA Tour’s developmental tour) players in one- and two-day events.

Harris’ first tournament was at North Palm Beach Country Club in North Palm Beach, Florida.

He was nervous as he stood on the first tee and sent his first shot into a fairway bunker.

That day he played with the event’s winner, which offered an up-close look at the life Harris was about to embark on.

“I shot like 72, 1-over, and (the winner) was like 5-under. I remember outdriving him, I was longer than him, but he was making everything inside 12 feet,” Harris remembered. “It didn’t even seem flashy or like he was some kind of stud or anything … I was like, ‘OK, yeah. That’s professional golf.’”

Harris attempts to make it in pro golf

In a way, Harris views his golf inexperience as a positive.

“I don’t have maybe the scar tissue, or I see a lot of guys get to my age and they’re burned out. I feel like I’m a kid fresh out of college playing,” Harris said. “I can’t wait to get out there every day and grind and get better.”

What was the biggest adjustment for Harris as he tried to move into professional golf by playing smaller events for most of 2018?

“You walk on the range of a PGA event versus a minor league tour event and you’re not really going to be able to tell the difference from the guys, the way they’re hitting it and stuff. It’s just such marginal differences in who really makes it and who doesn’t,” Harris explained. “Mentally is how I got a lot better.”

This applied to both the emotional and physical elements of Harris’ golf game.

He shaped his swing through a combination of golf books and magazines, and watching slow-motion Tiger Woods videos on YouTube.

He honed his mind by reading books written by Bob Rotella, a well-known sports psychologist who spent more than 20 years as a professor at the University of Virginia.

“You just have to keep moving, keep moving forward, hit the next shot, trust what you’re doing, keep a good mental state about you,” Harris said. “I have dropped my stroke average like one shot I’m pretty sure every year across all qualifiers and mini-tour events and things, and that doesn’t seem like a lot, but it feels like a lot and I know I can feel it in my game.”

While Harris can feel the progress being made, it’s still yet to correlate to any big-money or high-profile opportunities, until this week at the Barbasol Championship.

Harris’ original financial backer “backed out” on him, which meant Harris needed to work to afford his golf costs.

“I think my initial sponsor was thinking I was going to be (a) Korn Ferry (or) PGA guy in like, a year or two, and I got down there and quickly was like, ‘OK, so this is why guys take seven, eight years to get to the PGA Tour,’” Harris said.

The list of odd jobs Harris has worked after his time at Eastern Kentucky is lengthy: insurance, packing labels, sports agency and running a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise are all on the résumé.

Since 2019, Harris has worked as a caddie at different courses, mainly Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville (site of the 2024 PGA Championship) and PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It’s an activity that’s allowed Harris to stay immersed in golf and practice reading greens and judging shots.

Still, the obvious question remains: Is this all worth it?

“My best friends from growing up and stuff, they’re doing adult things. They’ve moved on, gotten married, gotten good jobs, buying houses and I’ve somewhat bypassed all that for the time being, because I’ve dedicated all my time and money into this pursuit of the PGA Tour and to this point, it’s been worth it,” Harris said.

“In the end I’m doing this because I love this game that much, and to be honest I don’t want an office, regular job. That’s what scares me the most, I want to play this game for a living because that’s what I’m going to be happiest doing.”

Harris earns exemption to Barbasol Championship as local long shot

So how does a player who isn’t even listed on the Official World Golf Ranking list get into his hometown PGA Tour event?

By writing a letter.

Each PGA Tour event has allotted spots for players to be awarded exemptions into the field by sponsors and the tournament committee.

These spots commonly go to golfers of interest: top local amateurs, college players, older name-brand players, emerging Korn Ferry Tour players.

Harris got in contact with the Barbasol Championship tournament director and passed along a letter he wrote, explaining his story and why he would be deserving of an exemption into the field.

“It’s a good story, I have a lot of people coming out, it seems like, who are going to follow along,” Harris said. “So I was kind of like, this is a good chance to give a local long shot a good opportunity. So they took to it and I can’t thank them enough.”

What does the opportunity mean to Harris?

“It really is a dream come true. I haven’t made it by any means, but I think even getting to this point is an accomplishment itself,” Harris said. “I know all golfers feel the same way. OK, I’m not Tiger Woods, I’m not Jack Nicklaus. But I’m good. … Where do I stand? Am I one of the best in the world or is this just a pipe dream?”

In addition to having family and friends in attendance for his PGA Tour debut, Harris can also count on familiar surroundings.

Harris credits the golf clubs around Lexington, everything from the exclusive Lexington Country Club to local municipal courses like Lakeside and Tates Creek, for letting him practice and play.

As far as the venue for the Barbasol Championship itself, Harris said he already knows every club he’s going to hit at Keene Trace.

“I’m going to try to let go of the internal and external pressures. Of course I want the results, I want to play well and if I do it could open up a ton of doors,” Harris said. “But I’m just going to have fun with it.”

PGA Barbasol Championship

When: Thursday through Sunday

Where: Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville (Champions Course)

TV: 4-7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3-6 p.m. Sunday (Golf Channel)

Tickets: Visit BarbasolChampionship.com/Tickets