How Matt Parziale went from fighting fires to playing alongside Tiger at Augusta

Evan Gibson, golf coach at Southeastern University, noticed something every time Matt Parziale returned to the Lakeland, Florida, school from his Brockton, Massachusetts, home. Parziale came back better, tougher, more prepared to dominate. He was always hitting the ball where he was aiming it after spending time with his old man, Vic, a firefighter who knew his way around the course.

"Nobody could reach Matt like Vic could," Gibson said. The coach now sells real estate in Tulsa, and he takes no credit for the arrival of his former star player at the Masters. "I was just trying to steer the ship and not hit an iceberg," Gibson said by phone. He is an old Buffalo Bills fan from upstate New York, and Parziale is a young New England Patriots fan from southeastern Massachusetts. And just as they agree to disagree on matters concerning the AFC East, they allow each other contrasting takes on Gibson's role in Parziale's improbable rise.

They drove to tournaments in a small van, telling stories and singing songs on the road to places like Rome, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina, returning home at 2 a.m. before the students rose for early classes in the morning. Parziale's teammate and roommate Ryan Carriss recalled practicing with his friend and dreaming up scenarios where this putt or that one would be for the green jacket. Now that the fantasy flirts with reality at Augusta National this week, Carriss ponders the time he caddied for Parziale at a mini-tour event in Kentucky. Carriss misread a birdie putt on the final hole that cost his former roommate a bunch of spots on the final leaderboard. "Man," Parziale told him. "You just cost me 12 bucks."

The stakes are much higher this week, and Carriss and Gibson will be among the Southeastern golf alumni in the Masters gallery to see how far Parziale can take this wild and crazy ride.

"I could tell you Matt was special the very first day he showed up at Southeastern with his dad, Vic," said Carriss, who remembered his teammate being in constant phone contact with his father over whatever athletic, academic and personal issues he was navigating at the time. "His dad played a huge role in his life. Matt will tell you his dad was his biggest role model by far."

So Thursday at Augusta National will be Father's Day for Vic Parziale, the retired 32-year firefighter and captain who will be caddying for his 30-year-old son, the U.S. Mid-Amateur champ, when he plays with former Masters champ Mike Weir and Brendan Steele. This will follow Wednesday's gift from the golfing gods for the Parziales, Matt's practice round with his idol Tiger Woods, who inspired the 9-year-old to become a golfer by smashing every Masters record in sight in 1997.

Matt waited and waited on the first tee for Woods to show up for their early Wednesday afternoon nine, looking like a boy worried that Santa Claus might not show. Suddenly, word rippled through the crowd that Tiger was heading to the nearby putting green, and off Matt and Vic marched to join him.

Woods greeted his newfound friend warmly. They chatted, took some practice putts, and then headed together to the first tee along with the third member of their group, Fred Couples, as fans shouted at them from both sides of the roped-off lane.

Parziale was first to put his tee in the ground. He lashed into his drive before two fans who had been poking fun at the sight of Matt waiting on Tiger earlier on.

"Who was that guy?" one asked.

The other replied: "He's a guy who's been waiting his entire life to hit that shot."

Tiger and the firefighter walked off the tee box and down the fairway talking and laughing as if they were lifelong buds, a scene that kept repeating itself across the front nine. "Matt played great today and we really had a lot of fun," Woods would say afterward. "He's a terrific kid and we had a really good time. I had a nice time with his dad, too -- he told some great stories about the fire department and things that he has done.

"The fact that Matt puts his life on the line every day for others and then does this is amazing."

As he carried Matt's bag, Vic could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing. His son was playing with his childhood hero, arguably the greatest player of all time, on the game's most iconic course. "It was like Matt playing with one of his buddies out there," Vic said. "Tiger was a great, great guy to both of us. ... After walking down the first hole, I knew it was going to be like that all day."

Vic and his father, Carmine, an electrician, hit and shagged balls with a young Matt in an empty field at the Brockton fairgrounds. Matt wasn't a prodigy. He was a good hockey player and all-around athlete in a rugged working-class town known as the home of shoe factories and a pair of boxing champs who never backed down, Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. Matt ended up at Southeastern, a non-scholarship member of the National Christian College Athletic Association, a group of small bible schools that didn't exactly feature the level of golf Woods was accustomed to at Stanford.

On arrival, Parziale carried himself as one of the nicest kids Gibson had ever met. "And Matt could absolutely strike a golf ball," his coach said. "Kids were hitting 3-woods into greens, and he's hitting 4-irons straighter, and he hammered his driver and 3-wood to begin with. When Matt hit the ball, it made a different sound than most people make. ... He was 10 times better than everyone around him."

To keep Parziale engaged and to dissuade him from transferring, Gibson upgraded the competition and scheduled as many NAIA schools as possible. Parziale led Southeastern to national titles, beating opponents on scholarship. "He's by far the best I've ever been around," said Carriss, who saw Parziale as a PGA Tour talent in the making. "Matt had the same ball flight, rhythm and motion every single time."

Matt never made it to the big leagues, never made any money as he struggled with his driver while working the mini-tour and Monday qualifier grind. Parziale decided it was time to get off the road and settle into a life by his father's side inside Fire Station 1.

Vic Parziale had survived his share of fires in Brockton, including one on Hillberg Avenue some 20 years ago that put him in harm's way. He was searching the top floor of the burning home when a door suddenly shut behind him and left him in a room filled with pitch-black smoke, leaving him to blindly feel his way out. Vic said he had suffered burns on his neck from hot embers at least a dozen times in his career, but he never once feared for his son's safety.

Matt immediately fell hard for station life, even if he understood that some of the same dangers that claimed 13 Brockton firefighters in the 1941 Strand Theatre fire were still in play. Modern equipment and gear have reduced the possibility of serious injury and death, but they haven't eliminated it. And Parziale's Ladder 1 was among the busiest in the country in 2016, according to Firehouse Magazine.

"We're pulling walls, ceilings, cutting holes in roofs," Matt said. "We're pretty much destroying the house, is what we're doing. But you've got to make sure the fire's out, because you're trying to find the fire. It gets in the walls and the attic. Yeah, 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."

What sounds like a terrifying prospect to an average citizen sounds like a calling and an adventure to the Parziales. Matt always wanted to fight a fire with his dad before Vic retired, and when that moment arrived two years into the job, Matt called it "probably the best thing that's happened so far."

At least until Matt earned his way into the Masters, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. He regained his amateur status, and his odd fire-station schedule (one 24-hour shift preceding two days off, followed by another 24-hour shift preceding four days off) allowed him the time to work on the flaws in his game. Matt staged an epic quarterfinal comeback at Atlanta's Capital City Club in October and ultimately won the Mid-Am with Vic on his bag, and father and son shared an emotional embrace before they boarded a cart with Matt's fiancée, a Brockton dentist named Alison Hubbard. "We have to change the wedding date," Matt immediately told Alison. Their August date conflicted with the U.S. Amateur. "Let's not talk about this right now," answered Alison, who later agreed to moving the date.

Matt was back in the Brockton firehouse by 7 the next morning.

Soon enough, a letter arrived from a most unlikely source -- Tiger Woods. The one and only wrote to congratulate Matt and to thank him for his firefighting service and kind words about Tiger's influence on his career. Matt framed the letter, and he later met Woods at Medalist Golf Club, and then met him again Wednesday at Augusta National for a practice round ripped straight out of Parziale's dreams.

The wait was well worth it. "He was just terrific to talk to and great to play with," Parziale said.

Matt's father had a front-row seat for his son and the indomitable Tiger, and then started gathering himself for Thursday morning's opening round of the real deal. "I think I'll be more nervous than Matt will," Vic said. The father offered to give up the son's bag for an Augusta National caddie who knows how to read the greens, but Matt would hear none of it. "He hasn't read a putt for me in 12 years," the Masters rookie said. "So I don't know why he thought he would start now."

Matt is on a leave of absence from the firehouse so he can temporarily play the role of full-time major championship golfer. His family, friends and former Southeastern coach and teammates believe he can make the Masters cut and finish Sunday as the low amateur. Carriss wouldn't rule out the possibility of his Southeastern roommate contending on the weekend.

"There's no doubt in my mind," Carriss said, "that if he brought his A game and mental game and it was on, he could compete with anyone in the world. But it takes a special person to win the Masters."

It also takes a special father to shape an amateur's journey to Augusta National. Matt Parziale got to play with his boyhood idol on Wednesday. On Thursday, he gets to walk at the Masters with his role model by his side.