In golf, more than in most sports, practice makes perfect. Clay Wilson sat down with a Wairau Valley teenager who is proving that old cliche correct and starting to stamp his mark on the Marlborough golf scene.
It is not often in our rugby-mad country you hear of a young sportsman choosing a golf ball over an oval ball but, in Matt Howard's case, that is exactly what he did.
The Marlborough golf fraternity will be glad he has, because the Wairau Valley teenager is one of the province's most promising players. Among other achievements, 17-year-old five-handicapper Matt not only competed in the MacDonald Cup senior interclub for the first time this year, he also made his debut appearance at senior representative level when he played for Marlborough in their annual clash against Wellington in August.
Given his earlier sporting involvement, both achievements were unlikely.
Like the majority of young Kiwi kids, rugby was the year 13 Marlborough Boys' College student's first sporting passion and, from a young age, his Saturday mornings were spent turning out for the Renwick club. He made several age-group teams but, by that stage, golf was beginning to gain more of his attention.
When he was around 8, Matt and elder brothers James and Hayden took up an offer to borrow some clubs from their Wairau Valley school principal and go for a bash around the local course. A lover of the outdoors, most sports and a keen hunter in his down time, Matt enjoyed golf straight away and, by the time he was 12, all three brothers had their own set of clubs and were club members. From there, club tournaments became a regular part of Matt's weekends in summer and the more he played the nine holes at Wairau Valley, the more he improved.
While golf was taking over his summers,rugby still featured during winter. Two years ago, he decided if he was ever going to give golf a decent crack it was time to give rugby away.
"I just sort of lost interest in rugby and golf was starting to become more and more enjoyable," he says. "I could actually hit the ball properly. I really only started playing most days last year. Before that, I was playing rugby as well and that took up a lot of time. Golf was a summer thing but then I gave up rugby and now I'm playing golf just about every day."
Matt's increased dedication quickly started to show in his performances. In July 2010, he made the Marlborough junior team for the first time, a team he has been a regular member of since. After winning several tournaments at Wairau Valley at the start of last year, his motivation further increased but he says making the Marlborough senior team just over a year later was both unexpected and nerve-racking.
"I didn't expect [too make it]. The team got named and I wasn't in it but then a couple of people couldn't make it so I got called in," he says. "It was quite a good feeling. In the first round we were partnered up and I got paired with Lyell Marfell, who is a nice guy and he helped me round the course.
"It felt a lot different because normally, in the juniors, I play at No 2, but in the seniors I was No 10. On the first tee, I had a bit of a shocker with my first shot so it wasn't a good start but I came right after that."
Matt says it is simply "a lot of time on the course" which is the major reason he is having success. However, coaching lessons with Jonti Phillipson, which he started halfway through 2011, have been beneficial and he also points to the friendship and rivalry he has established with fellow top junior Chas Craig as playing its part.
Matt doesn't know yet what he wants to do when he finishes school at the end of this year but he hopes it will be something outdoors. He also hopes to continue climbing the golf ranks. High on his priority list, is getting his handicap down to around two and winning the club champs at Wairau Valley, something he has just missed out on doing the last two years.
"Each time you go out and play you can get better," he says. "You can't get everything perfect and there is always something that brings you back."
WEEKLY SPORTS STAR
Name: Matthew Howard.
Born: Wairau Hospital, Blenheim, May 12, 1995.
Educated: Wairau Valley Primary and Marlborough Boys' College.
Earliest sporting hero: Tiger Woods.
Latest sporting hero: Matt Kuchar, Dan Carter, Chas Craig.
Must-watch TV programme:nf Home and Away, Shortland Street, any golf tournaments that are on.
Must-have food: Hot chips.
What's hot on your MP3 player (walkman/stereo): Anything really.
Favourite holiday spot: Anywhere with family and friends.
Fashion crime: Snapbacks.
Favourite sporting moment: Playing for Marlborough seniors this year against Wellington. Seeing Europe beat US in this year's Ryder Cup competition.
Worst sporting moment: Losing the club champs at Wairau Valley golf club two years in a row.
In five years I'll be: Hopefully still playing golf, maybe at a higher level.
- The Marlborough Express