Matt Parziale had to take a break from fighting fires to play at Masters

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

AUGUSTA, Georgia – In the run-up to the Masters, Matt Parziale had to take some time off from his day job because, well, unlike pretty much every other golfer in the Masters field, he has a day job and that day job involves charging into burning buildings, ripping out walls and roofs and trying to avoid flames, smoke and other mayhem.

“Yeah, it’s a dangerous job,” Parziale said of being a firefighter. “We get in all different situations.”

The crow’s nest above the Augusta National clubhouse, where Parziale is staying this week, is a long way from Firehouse No. 1 in Brockton, Massachusetts, where Parziale usually stays while on duty.

That’s his dual life, though. He’s part professional firefighter in a hard-scrabble city just south of Boston. He’s part amateur golfer who, by way of winning the US Mid-Amateur Championship, is here among the full-bloomed azaleas. The 30-year-old, second-generation firefighter somehow moves between both like this actually makes sense.

“Yeah, it’s incredible,” Parziale acknowledged here Monday after a practice round. “But I don’t see it that way because I’ve obviously lived it. But it’s a great story and I understand why there is so much attention. And I [have] had fun with it.”

Start with this: Golf favors the wealthy. Brockton isn’t wealthy and Parziale’s father, Vic, was a firefighter there for 32 years, so he wasn’t bucking that trend. In sports, Brockton is known for being home to boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, plus a powerhouse high school football team. Its best connection to golf is that the sports writer Herbert Warren Wind grew up there and he coined the phrase “Amen Corner.”

“It’s a tough city,” Parziale said. “It’s gone pretty downhill since my dad was a kid. But I love it there.”

Matt Parziale, right, the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who works as a firefighter in his hometown in Massachusetts, shares a laugh with Rory McIlroy on the first green during a practice round for the Masters. (AP)

Parziale was a hockey player until Tiger Woods inspired him to try golf. There was no private club to practice at though. Not much money for endless buckets of driving range balls either. Vic would take Matt to the humble Brockton Fair Grounds, a forlorn plot home to an annual summer carnival that is famous for staging a demolition derby.

Matt would hit there and then shag his own balls.

He was good enough to play NAIA golf at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. After graduation in 2009, Parziale tried to make a go of it in the mini tours that can feed into the PGA Tour. The travel was relentless, though, and as much as he loved the game, there was no money to continue. His dad couldn’t just underwrite him.

Parziale decided to get a job and was hired by the Brockton fire department. He renounced his pro status and became an amateur again.

Firehouse 1 is busy, a dozen calls a shift at least, dealing with a city that long ago fell on hard times and never has gotten back up. The job requires 24-hour shifts, which means working just two full days a week. That left time for golf, at least part of the year.

“I usually don’t touch the clubs until the snow melts and – well, April this year, sometimes March,” Parzaile said.

The rest of the year he skis in New Hampshire on his off days. A six-, seven-month golf season, followed by months of skiing isn’t how the other golfers here set up their schedule.

Parziale never really gave up competing, though. Amateur tournaments were enough for him, even if he had to squeeze them into the schedule. He once played in a tourney where he shot a 66 in the second round, went to the firehouse for an overnight shift, got done at 9 a.m. and returned to the course for an 11:10 a.m. tee time. He won the event anyway.

He has a classic firefighter’s mentality – just get the job done without complaint. He doesn’t dwell on the fact that he could have or should have kept chasing his pro golf dreams because, he notes, that would have denied him from being a firefighter, in which he finds incredible purpose, brotherhood and enjoyment. For him, maybe it can’t be one without the other.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to do two things that I love – playing competitive golf and have a career that I really do enjoy,” he said.

He now belongs to the Thorny Lea Golf Club in Brockton, which is a private track. Except for guys his age, it requires no initiation fee and dues of just $2,250 a year. Augusta National it’s not. When he won the Mid-Am this year and earned a spot in the Masters field, he knew he had to take the opportunity seriously. He’s also qualified for June’s U.S. Open. That meant getting a leave from the fire department so he could travel south for practice and, most importantly, remain injury free.

It’s firefighting after all.

“Usually every house fire we go into, you leave a little banged up,” he said. “If you leave too banged up, then you could be out for a year. So, I’ve already missed five months from work because of a knee injury, so you never know what’s going to happen.”

This is not a normal golfer’s concern.

“Yeah, I mean, we’re pulling walls, ceilings, cutting holes in roofs,” Parziale said. “We’re pretty much destroying the house is what we’re doing. But you got to make sure the fire’s out. Because you’re trying to find the fire. It gets in the walls and the attic. You have stuff flying everywhere, people swinging tools everywhere. A lot of things can happen. You can’t see a thing, so might as well close your eyes. It’s pitch black. It’s not like the movies.”

The BFD was fine with the golf excursion. The city is excited for his success. Thorny Lea said all the firefighters can come watch the Masters at their place. Parziale’s goals for the week are to compete and to maybe get a practice round in with Tiger Woods. Just about everyone is pulling for him on both counts – especially other firefighters who have sent along congratulations.

“A few guys from all over the country, guys I’ve never met, firefighters, [asking] ‘Hey, would like me to come caddie? I would love to go to Augusta.’ So, it’s funny.”

His father Vic will be his caddie, of course. Vic tried to turn the job down because he said he couldn’t read the putts here. Matt noted he hadn’t listened to any of his reads in 12 years anyway.

It’s that kind of fun here. His best moment as a firefighter, he said, was when he and his dad got to fight one side by side before his father retired.

He gave up on one dream to pursue another but now he’s back on the first dream even though he figures it isn’t nearly as big of a deal as everyone is making it.

“I do this because this is what I love to do,” he said. “It’s just cool that everyone [has] someone to root for this week.”

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