Hooks and ladders: A Massachusetts firefighter will tee it up at the Masters

March 20, 2018

The place of business for the new United States Mid-Amateur champ is not a white-shoe law firm, or an investment bank, or any other perch that denotes comfort and privilege. No, Matt Parziale’s office is a sagging firehouse in a scrappy part of Brockton, Mass., a suburb of Boston that has seen better days. On a recent afternoon, Parziale stopped by the imposing colonial on Pleasant Street.

The gray wood floors look like they haven’t seen varnish in decades. Paint is peeling in a few spots. Parziale showed off the small, pungent room where he has slept countless nights over the last five years, a bare mattress crammed into each of its four corners. Just down the hall, the station’s on-duty firefighters were enjoying a hearty lunch while a mindless action flick played in the background. The room lit up as soon as Parziale, a boyish 30-year-old, peeked in.

“Hey, Hollywood!” someone yelled in greeting. Parziale could only smile, having known in advance that such good-natured abuse was inevitable.

A half-dozen guys started talking at the same time, all in accents thicker than chowdah. They asked after Parziale’s old man, Vic, who served 33 years in the same precinct before retiring last autumn as a captain. Inevitably, talk turned to Parziale’s upcoming tournament schedule.

“I’m gonna try to get down there to watch,” one guy said, “but I’m looking for a green blazer to wear so I can fit in.” The room exploded in laughter.

Somewhere Bobby Jones must be smiling about the culture clash of a horde of Beantown back-drafters tromping along his gilded fairways. But it was Jones’s abiding love for amateur golf that created a spot in the Masters for a guy like Parziale and his cinematic journey to Augusta.

“I mean, c’mon, this is ridiculous,” says Parziale’s swing coach, Shawn Hester. “You gotta know Brockton is a tough place, and if you’re a firefighter there you’ve seen some tough stuff. This is a working-class kid from a working-class family. And now he’s playing in the Masters? You can’t make this stuff up.”

Naturally, Parziale was introduced to the game not at a swish country club but on an empty field adjacent to the Brockton Fairgrounds, where his father and grandfather Carmine toted shag bags and created their own DIY driving range. It is a treasured bit of family lore that the first time Carmine gave his grandson a lesson, the five-year-old Matt slammed him in the chest on his backswing. Rather than be upset, Carmine was impressed by the kid’s extension. Matt was a standout hockey player growing up—Vic coached every one of his teams—but when he was 13 he started working in the bag room at Thorny Lea Golf Club, a low-key joint known throughout New England for producing strong players. There were a dozen or so kids around Parziale’s age who worked at the club, and nearly every day this band of brothers engaged in cutthroat games when their shifts ended. “There’s always action at Thorny Lea,” Parziale says over lunch at the club, where a sandwich has been named in his honor. “Now it can get pretty expensive; back then if you had a bad day you’d lose twenty bucks, but that stung because it was all of your tip money for the day.”

Brockton birthed the celebrated pugilists Marvin Hagler and Rocky Marciano, and the latter’s bronze likeness towers over a local high school campus. Brockton carries the grandiose nickname “City of Champions,” and even as a teenager Parziale modeled the grit of the town’s favorite sons. “Matt’s always had a nice swing, but what set him apart was the other stuff,” says Greg Chalas, who was part of the Thorny Lea cohort and remains one of Parziale’s best friends. “You just couldn’t beat this kid because he was so strong mentally. He has always had so much determination. He never stops fighting.”

Parziale matriculated to Southeastern University, in Lakeland, Fla., and in the year-round sunshine his game accelerated. In 2008, as a junior, he was the individual medalist and led his team to the National Christian College Athletic Association national championship. Parziale turned pro after graduating, staked by a consortium of Thorny Lea members. For three years he struggled to get by, and then in 2013 he walked away.

“I think he should’ve given it a few more years,” says Vic. “He’s always been a little bit of a late bloomer. I think he’s as talented as any of those guys, he just needed more time.”

Matt disagrees. “I loved immersing myself in the game and preparing for and playing tournaments,” he says. “I loved the competition. But it was time. I have no regrets. One thing I’ve always been good at is that when I make a decision, I’m one-hundred-percent committed to it.”

So Parziale returned to Brockton, to the only life he knew. (An uncle and brother-in-law are also firefighters.) Matt had grown up at the firehouse, revering these macho everyday heroes and enchanted by the camaraderie they shared. What he didn’t expect was that the job would be so much, well, fun. “It’s such a rush,” he says. “It’s mayhem. It’s chaos. Your blood is pumping, your adrenaline is going, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with guys you care about and you’re doing it all with a sense of teamwork and purpose. It’s just an awesome experience.”

Brockton fire department policy precludes members of the same family battling the same fire, but on one occasion Parziale was working overtime when, just after midnight, his squad was called to a house that had turned into an inferno. “It was going pretty good,” he says. “In a house fire you might as well close your eyes because you can’t see a thing. Someone grabbed me and said, “Who’s this?” That’s what you do, you just kind of feel your way through. I saw the bottom of his jacket, which had his name on it. So I said, “Dad, it’s me.” Because I was working OT, I guess it had slipped through the cracks that we were on the same shift. But we didn’t care! We got on the water and just had a blast, hosing down this fire together. It was one of the best moments of my life.”

In Brockton, all of the firefighters work 24-hour shifts: one on, two off, one on, four off. It’s a schedule that allows for a lot of time to play golf. Parziale regained his amateur status and started competing again. He joined Thorny Lea as a full-fledged member, a nice circle-of-life accomplishment for the one-time bag-room attendant. But balancing golf and his day job wasn’t always easy. Before the 36-hole final of the 2017 Thorny Lea club championship, Parziale was up all night on a series of medical calls. He stumbled to the first tee without having slept and shot a messy 74. At lunch he decided vodka was his only hope, and nursing a cocktail throughout the afternoon 18 he shot a 66 to take the title. As other wins piled up, including the 2017 Massachusetts Amateur, Parziale laid out to Hester an ambitious to-do list: win a Mid-Am title, make the Walker Cup team, contend for the U.S. Amateur.

To do so, he would have to overcome one significant mental block. Parziale had long been the Henrik Stenson of New England, wielding a wicked 3-wood. In fact, in the years after his pro career ended, he did not even carry a driver. On the shortish tracks he was playing he didn’t really need one, given that he could hit his 3-wood 280 yards and usually dead-straight. But that wouldn’t cut it at the national level. It wasn’t until a U.S. Open qualifier in May 2017 that he fully embraced hitting driver, and that unlocked the rest of Parziale’s game. He tore through the Mid-Am bracket and then, in the 36-hole final, with an invite to Augusta hanging in the balance, shot an unofficial 63 en route to an 8-and-6 victory over Josh Nichols, a wedding caterer from Kernersville, N.C. The margin of victory was the third-largest in the event’s history.

That night Parziale flew back to Boston with his fiancée, Alison Hubbard, arriving home at 2 a.m. Five hours later he reported to work. Not long after, a falling piece of debris almost clipped him on the shoulder, and Parziale decided that fighting fires was too risky for the time being. He has taken a leave of absence to prepare for the Masters. Money is a little bit tight, but Hubbard—a dentist with an office just down the street from the firehouse and next door to Doe-E-Duck Donuts—has been happy to put food on the table. Parziale’s travel and other golf-related expenses are being defrayed by the Massachusetts Amateur Golf Alliance and a group of Brockton golfers who’ve kicked in money to help the local boy make good.

The last time an amateur made any noise at the Masters was in 2005, when Ryan Moore finished 13th. Despite his unlikely journey to Augusta, Parziale won’t look out of place. “On the range at the Masters it’s usually pretty easy to spot the amateurs,” says Hester. “That won’t be the case with Matt. This guy’s action is Tour-pro quality.”

Of course, there is so much more to it than that. Will the former bag-room attendant be overwhelmed by the spectacle of the Masters?

“Aw, gimme a break,” says Vic with a chuckle. “Matt’s been in some hairy situations. The guys he fights fires with have told me he never shows any fear. You get put in those life-or-death situations, it makes you mentally tough. I know Amen Corner is no cakewalk, but I think he can handle it.”