Brockton, Massachusetts is the dictionary definition of a blue collar city. The household median income hovers around $50,000—about $17,000 less than the state average. The city was built on the back of its shoe and leather industry, and it’s home to two of the greatest boxing champions in history—Rocky Marciano and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. It’s no surprise, then, that its newest favorite son is a firefighter.
Matt Parziale had two idols growing up. His father Vic, a Brockton firefighter, and Tiger Woods.
“I always wanted to be like my father,” says Parziale. “He introduced me to two things that have been very important in my life: fighting fires and playing golf.”
When Matt was younger, Vic—who just retired after 32 years as a Brockton firefighter himself—would take him to the fairgrounds to hit balls. No tee boxes; no fairways; no greens. Just a vast, vacant space where the stakes were low and the mistakes didn’t matter. Tee it up, swing, track the ball’s flight, make adjustments, repeat. As far as fathers who play golf go, Matt couldn’t have had a much better teacher. Vic plays to an 8 handicap, which, take our word, is very good for a weekend warrior.
But the Parziales weren’t your typical golf family. They were not bankers or lawyers or financiers: They were working class people. Golf is plagued by steep barriers to entry—the pure athleticism that might allow a newcomer to succeed in football or basketball won’t help a new golfer on the tee box. Instead, one must invest years of time practicing, and usually, one must sink thousands upon thousands of dollars into clubs and balls and coaches and greens fees before even sniffing around a respectable score.
As such, golf has historically and overwhelmingly been played—and mastered—by the well-heeled. Country club types for whom the cost of membership fees and dry-fit polo shirts is not a concern. Which makes it somewhat surprising that last October, Parziale achieved what he did. On a magical weekend, Parziale put himself in the company of his hero. He became the 37th winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur Golf Championship, and in doing so earned himself an invitation to this year’s Masters tournament and, new for this year, the win also earned him an exemption to U.S. Open in Shinecock Hills.
“I wasn’t that good in high school,” says Parziale. “I didn’t play on the high school team. I played in some junior tournaments, and I did alright. But nothing special.”
Despite not playing organized golf in high school, Parziale found himself playing college golf at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. During Parziale’s first three collegiate seasons, Southeastern competed in the National Christian College Athletic Association. In his final season, they competed in the NAIA. Parziale demurred when I asked him about his success in college; Parziale’s coach, Evan Gibson, did anything but.
“Everyone on the team knew he was an incredible player,” said Gibson. “He was longer than everyone, and he was the most talented player on the team. I mean, he qualified for the U.S.-Amateur Championship as a senior.
“He’s the kind of guy you’re proud to be associated with,” continued Gibson. “He was absolutely adored by his coaches and his teammates. A very humble kid. And we all feel like we’re going to be there [at the Masters and the U.S. Open] with him.”
Worshipping at the throne of Tiger Woods is a cliché for most millennial golfers. Woods took the golf world by storm when he became the youngest player to win a major at the 1997 Masters. Teens and pre-teens didn’t want to watch Fred Couples (as cool as Boom Boom is) or Tom Kite or, I don’t know, Frank fucking Nobilo challenge for major championships—they wanted to watch players closer to their own age make moves on Saturday and close shit out on Sunday. They especially wanted to watch those players make moves and runs if those moves and runs served to subvert something.
Before Tiger did so in 1997, no black player had ever won a major championship. And just seven years before Tiger won the first of his four Masters, Augusta National—the club in Georgia at which the tournament is played—had exactly zero black members. Tiger’s win ushered in of a youth movement on the PGA Tour—it was time for the the Hale Irwins and Greg Normans and Ben Crenshaws to take a nap—but it also meant the opening up of the game of golf to a group of outsiders who’d forever been denied access. A young, blue collar kid from Brockton was taking notice.
“I play because of Tiger,” said Parziale. “I fell in love with the game watching Tiger. Just, 2000. I remember: It wasn’t whether or not he was going to win, it was whether or not he was going to make a bogey.”
Parziale doesn’t agree that golf is an indicator of class. When I asked him about the juxtaposition of himself and past U.S. Mid-Am champions like Stewart Hagestad—a New York City real estate agent who doesn’t need golf to make his nut—Parziale brushed me off.
“I don’t agree that there’s this big class divide in golf,” said Parziale. “Golf is different than your job. You work—whatever your job is—and you also love golf. I love to compete. I work hard at my job, I work hard at this. So does everyone else. That’s how I look at this.”
About working hard at his day job: Parziale works two 24 hour shifts every eight days. He cleans the trucks, he cleans the tools. For 48 consecutive hours, he’s responsible for putting out fires and saving lives and homes. But if golf is solitary, fighting fires is the ultimate team sport. This is something that Parziale appreciates immensely.
“We’re very busy,” said Parziale. “I work with a great group of guys. And it’s tough work, tougher than being on the golf course. But honestly: going to a fire is a blast. So much camaraderie. And it couldn’t be any different from golf. Fighting fires is absolute chaos at all times. Nothing goes as you planned. Not that every round of golf is the same, but you have more control.”
Because his work week is confined to two days, Parziale is able to get on the golf course an awful lot.
“I have a club in my hand six out of every eight days,” he said.
Parziale grew up playing at a public course in Brockton called D.W. Field Golf Course, but he’s been a member at Thorny Lea—also in Brockton—since he was in high school. He said the support of the course and the membership has been outstanding.
“This doesn’t happen without everyone up there helping me out from a young age,” he said. “We have the best players in the state. It’s where I learned how to play the game; it’s where I learned how to compete.” ‘
Another Thorny Lea member, just reached the semi-finals at the 2017 U.S. Women’s Mid-Am. I asked Parziale if there’s something in the water at Thorny Lea.
“It’s good whatever it is.”
When Parziale finished at Southeastern, he stayed in Florida for three years playing golf. He competed in PGA qualifying school events, mini tours, and at Monday qualifiers, but in the end he decided that life wasn’t for him. He wanted to head back home and follow in Vic’s footsteps. So he moved back to Brockton and became a firefighter—but he never stopped playing golf. His road to U.S. Mid-Amateur glory wasn’t exactly smooth, though.
When a golfer plays professionally at any level, the United States Golf Association revokes her or his amateur status. This prevents professionals from playing in tournaments like the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Mid-Amateur. A golfer can regain amateur status by discontinuing his or her professional career and waiting for a period of time—but this waiting period ushers in a stretch of time during which a golfer will play zero rounds of competitive golf. That’s no small roadblock when you’re trying to make waves in the U.S. amateur scene.
“We’d discussed his desire to make a Walker Cup team, said Shawn Hester, who serves as Parziale’s current coach. (The Walker Cup is a sort of amateur counterpart to the Ryder Cup.) “That was one of the big goals he had. He’s been a high-ranking mid-amateur for a while now, but he really refocused himself in the past year. None of his recent success shocks me.”
Hester wasn’t shocked at Parizale’s performance at the Cpaital City Golf Club in Atlanta, GA either. Parziale played near-perfect golf at the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, smashing Josh Nichols 8 and 6 for one of the biggest victories in the history of the event. The pride of Brockton fired 10 birdies over 30 holes, eight of which came during the morning 18. It was a convincing victory, especially for a golfer whose career—by his own admission—wasn’t always a sure thing.
To this point, Matt Parziale has gotten the chance to work alongside one of his two childhood heroes: he and Vic got to fight exactly one fire together before his father retired.
“We have only been able to work one fire together,” said Vic. “But everyone he’s worked for says he’s a hard worker. All you can ask for is someone who’s respected by their officers.”
“I’m happy I got to work one fire with my father before he retired,” said Matt.
Come next PGA Tour season, Parziale is hoping to get to go to work alongside his other idol.
“Man, I’d love to play a practice round with Tiger,” he said. “I have to seek him out and ask him. Although, I’m not even sure I’d even be able to make contact. Maybe I’d just walk around and watch him play.”