He may have one of the U.S. Open’s grossest habits. He also might win

Matthieu Pavon

Matthieu Pavon hits his tee shot on Thursday on the 16th hole at Pinehurst.

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PINEHURST, N.C. — Let’s talk food. It’s an adored subject of the French, after all. And Matthieu Pavon, one of their native sons. 

“Loves his meat. Loves the wine,” longtime friend and fellow Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera said back in April. “You know, we French, man.” 

Absolutely. 

“We need good bread, we need a good table, we need a laugh and good food,” Lorenzo-Vera continued. “And good wine. There’s nothing more, to be honest.” 

It’s with that that we go to the right of Pinehurst’s 17th tee, where Pavon approached during Thursday’s U.S. Open first round. He’d just bogeyed the 16th. It dropped him out of the lead. His gait looked quicker. He was seething. He was hungry. 

Wait, what?

Indeed. He grabbed a broken-in-half, white wooden tee sitting right of the tee box, toyed with it in his fingers for a sec, then placed it between his lips as if it were a cigarette. Eventually, it ended up all the way in his mouth as he stared ahead. 

What was going on there, Matthieu? The Carolina pines and its associated wood most definitely smell good, but few have attested to their culinary quality. 

“No, no, it’s just I grabbed — when I’m waiting on the par-3, usually I don’t use my tee pegs because they are brand new,” he said afterward. “I just take an old one and I just put it in my mouth. So it was nothing really special. It was nothing special at all.”

To him. And that’s maybe the best thing here for him. The bogey was but a bogey. They’re everywhere around here anyway. Back on the horse. Back to basics. Back to his tee snack, his tee time. And things clicked again. After about a minute, he pulled the tee out of his mouth, shoved it into the turf, placed his ball atop it and parred. He parred 18. He signed for a three-under 67 and was a couple strokes out of the lead after the 124th U.S. Open’s morning wave. 

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But yeah, the whole tee thing was gritty, which was not unlike the day, and kinda like Pavon.

He eagled twice. He birdied once. The eagles were stunning. On the 582-yard, par-5 5th, from 241 yards out, he dropped a 5-iron to 17 feet on his way to the three. On the 619-yard, par-5 10th, from 297 away, he shipped a 3-wood to 27 en route to another triple. But there was damage control, too, as important of a necessity at Pinehurst as ordering a transfusion drink at the Cradle par-3 course (which is serving as the driving range this week). He bogeyed only twice. Most importantly, he had no blow-ups. 

A couple weeks ago, he’d also grinded. Pavon said he needed to adjust. He knew Pinehurst’s greens would be faster — and slopier. They’re distinctive. Putting coach Jon Karlsen visited him at his new outpost, in Florida.   

They came away optimistic. 

“Yeah, it’s not really technical,” Pavon said. “It’s more about seeing breaks because when it’s slower, when you have less break, the ball doesn’t move as much as here. Here it’s really — it’s steep, it’s fast, it’s grainy, so the ball moves quite a lot. You have a lot of curves on the green. It was all about understanding how much I have to aim away from the hole and how nice I have to adjust my pace to really putt in a way I wasn’t used to, which is like a dead-weight type of putting, like very at the last drop, and before I was more kind of aggressive. 

“It was really something I had to adjust.”

If he’s being honest, the whole year’s been that way. Adjusting. A longtime DP World Tour member, he earned a PGA Tour card late last year, after an improbable birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie finish at the DP World Tour Championship. He moved to the States. Then he won in January, at the Farmers Insurance Open, after an 18th-hole birdie at Torrey Pines. It was a career-changer — and an expectations-increaser. Newfound pressure followed.   

After a tie for 12th at the Masters, his PGA Tour results went as follows: T49 at the RBC Heritage, 67th at the no-cut Wells Fargo Championship, missed cut at the PGA Championship, missed cut last week at the Memorial. 

“I’ve been crushed by the few last golf courses,” Pavon said. “Like I played terrible at Quail Hollow. I played terrible at PGA. I played terrible at Memorial, too. These type of golf courses I’m not really — not saying ready, but I used to play like slightly easier golf courses back in Europe, so I kind of have to adjust my game, adjust my thinking. Obviously when it’s really, really tough like this week, at least you know that sometimes you have to take away some pressure and some expectations and play smart to the great spots and make one or two up-and-downs when you need them. This is what really changed compared to some of the last weeks.”

There’s been a bounceback-ability to Pavon for a while, though. We’ve seen that in his career. We saw that Thursday. 

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We see it on his body. Pavon’s a believer in inspiration. On his right hand are tattooed the words “the saliva that flows now will become the tears of joy tomorrow.” On his chest are the Indian words for the phrase “grow up.”

“I wasn’t happy about the situation and the moments I had on the course,” Pavon said in April at the Masters. “I went to that country, India. I saw some of the poorest things in my life. I saw kids almost naked in the streets having fun close to some water on the side of the road, having no shoes and stuff like this.

“And I was like, I really have to grow up, like stop being a teenager, stop complaining about everything, just embracing the moment, because I’m a very lucky person, and I think all the players so far really are. We are lucky to do this. It’s a lot of hard work, but we are still lucky to be healthy and have a great situation.”

Now? 

He’s in the U.S. Open mix. Friday, he’s off at 1:58 p.m. off tee No. 10 for Round 2. He’s hungry. For major win No. 1. For the first major victory for a Frenchman since Arnaud Massy won at  the 1907 Open Championship.  

For tees. 

“I felt like I’m still working on the right direction with my team,” Pavon said, “so it’s just about all focus is on the process. You know you’re going to have hard times and better days, and when I came here, I felt like around the greens, it was really something that we’ve seen in Europe. Let’s say you can putt a lot. You don’t have to carry the ball. There is not like thick rough. This is like a links-y, let’s say, type of golf course. 

“It looked a little bit familiar, and this is probably why I enjoyed so much being out there today.” 

Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.

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