Not easily intimidated, 14-year-old Matthew Vital took his stance at Hunstville Golf Club’s 18th tee knowing full well the direness of his situation.
The young Bethlehem resident needed a par-4 on the 456-yard hole to reach a five-man playoff for the last qualifying spot in the 107th Pennsylvania Amateur Championship.
“The tee shots [at Huntsville] are really challenging,” Matthew said to The Morning Call. “If you don’t hit a good shot, it’s going to be a hard hole for you.”
Selecting his tool of choice, Matthew retrieved a driver from his bag and drew it from the right rough to the middle of the fairway. The shot left him 130 yards to the hole. In his follow-up shot, using his wedge, the ball stopped only a foot from the pin.
Matthew’s birdie on that hole gave him an even-par round of 72 earning him the 10th (and final) qualifying spot for the state amateur, a tournament that is deemed to be one of the top amateur golf events in Pennsylvania.
With the qualification, came the historic accomplishment of Matthew becoming the youngest tournament qualifier ever from the Lehigh Valley.
Matthew, who swung his firs club at 3-years old, has only a few days to prepare for the challenge, as the state amateur field is scheduled to tee up July 27-29, at Lookaway Golf Club in Buckingham, Bucks County.
Joining Matthew at the Huntsville event were several other local qualifiers including Northampton Country Club’s John Dimler (70) and Lehigh Country Club’s Brian Albertazzi (71). Also, Northampton CC’s Luke Smith qualified at Berkshire CC.
A budding sophomore student who attends Liberty High School, Matthew has made history before by becoming the youngest medalist and registered the lowest qualifying round (4-under 67) in the Lehigh Valley Open qualifier in late June at Bethlehem Golf Club, his home course.
“That was special to me because that’s where I grew up playing,” he said. “I still have the scorecard when I played with my [twin] brother Michael and I shot 78,” he told The Morning Call.
Matthew’s father, Gus Vital, had this to say on Facebook about his son’s win as he makes history heading to the 107th Pennsylvania Amateur Championship: Great job by Matthew and coach Alex Knoll to put together a great game for the history book. Matthew shot 4 under par to win the Lehigh Valley open qualifier. One of the lowest scores ever for the qualifier and at the age 14. This record will be there for a while. He is already back at work.” The statement accompanied a video of Matthew at practice.
Matthew has quite a few successes under his belt:
2019: Bethlehem’s Matthew Vital wins Drive, Chip & Putt national.
Matthew at only 7-years old when he started being coached by Alex Knoll at Bethlehem GC. Currently, Coach Knoll now teaches and coaches at Palmerton High School and serves as head teaching professional at Glen Brook GC in Stroudsburg.
The two worked together for a couple of years, then reconnected last fall.
“Matthew is so technically sound with his golf swing and generates such speed for his body frame,” Knoll said to The Morning Call. “He is a die-hard golf nut who loves the competitive side. It’s why he is working so hard.
“He strives to win as many tournaments as he can, shoot as low of a score as he can. When he sees that progress, it motivates him.”
Matthew believes in staying fit and at 5-foot-6, 125-pounds he keeps a punctual schedule throughout winter and spring to keep his strength. He has also begun hitting a draw off the tee, and this effort has made a considerable difference in how far he’s hitting the ball. So far, he has gained an extra 30 yards, or so, from the natural conversion of a fade to a draw.
“I think as a junior that you’re born to either hit a draw or fade,” Knoll said to The Morning Call. “I thought he was trying to manufacture a fade. When you swing with a more developed body, a draw seemed more natural.
“It simplified his game, let his body do the work and stopped him from getting in his own way.”
Vital lets everyone know how much he likes preparing for tournaments, he especially likes playing at courses where he has not played before. He take his time doing extensive research and planning for each course. He also stays alert to course conditions and makes the necessary adjustments when playing.
Vital told The Morning Call that he was driving and putting well in the Lehigh Valley Open qualifier. His near hole-out with a 9-iron over a tree on the par-4 third hole put him at 2-under. He missed short birdie putts on the seventh and eighth holes before getting to 3-under with a birdie at the ninth.
The Lehigh Valley Open is July 22-23 at Northampton CC. Matthew qualified in previous years for the event through the local junior program at Northampton. Last month, however, he beat out a field of older, more seasoned players.
The Pennsylvania Amateur Championship is the following week.
“That’s a huge step, qualifying for that event,” Knoll said of the Pa. Amateur. “That’s a huge turning point for him, a big-boy event. He’ll be playing against the best amateurs of all ages in the state. Making the state amateur at that young of an age is extremely impressive. He’s beating seasoned amateurs who have been playing for 20, 30, 40 years.