FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – People have been telling Matthew Wolff how talented he is practically since he picked up a golf club.
Sure, there was the head pro who exclaimed to a teenage Wolff that his unique swing wouldn’t last. But in the past two years, Wolff has proven any remaining doubter wrong and reached icon status in college golf while almost unanimously becoming golf's next big thing.
He sunk the winning putt at last year’s NCAA Championship before capturing the Phil Mickelson Award as top freshman. His TrackMan numbers – 135 mph swing speed, 190 mph ball speed, 350-yard drives – broke Twitter, and Instagram. He won the first three tournaments this season while becoming the nation’s top-ranked player and favorite for the Haskins Award, given to the country’s most outstanding male golfer.
On Monday he dusted the field at Blessings Golf Club, finishing the event at 10 under and winning the NCAA individual title by a whopping five shots. It was his sixth victory of the season. He’ll surely win the Haskins Award. And the Jack Nicklaus Award, too.
And in a few days, he’ll turn pro, sign lucrative endorsement deals and embark on a summer full of PGA Tour starts.
“We all know he’s the best player in the country, but it’s tough to play well when you know what’s about to happen,” said Wolff’s teammate and roommate Austin Eckroat. “It’s impressive to see because there’s a lot of pressure on him, everyone knows he’s the best and he’s got this bar that he has to keep up there.
“He’s proven that he deserves all of this.”
Wolff certainly appears to have everything – talent, success, an infectious personality, good looks and shortly, fame and fortune. He became Oklahoma State’s ninth NCAA individual champion Monday, and put the finishing touches on the best scoring average in NCAA history (68.69).
But last year around Thanksgiving, he messaged one of his close friends, former high-school teammate and current Texas junior Spencer Soosman. Something was missing.
“He said that he didn’t really feel whole,” Soosman said.
Soosman and Wolff grew up in Jewish families. They’d celebrate holidays but weren’t necessarily devout in their practice of the faith. Last fall, Wolff became curious about Christianity, which led him to Karsten Majors, a former Cowboys golfer who works with College Golf Fellowship. Majors and another former Cowboy, and current strength coach Jonathan Moore, have been mentors to Wolff on his new journey.
“I gave my faith to God,” Wolff said, “and it’s been pretty incredible.”
Added Soosman: “He’s still the same kid, but the difference is he sees himself for what he is, and he sees what he can do.”
Wolff’s mother, Shari, has seen a change in her son since last fall. As a kid, Wolff would get down on himself when the ball didn’t bounce his way. Playing team sports – baseball, football, you name it – he’d constantly feel like he was letting his team down. His first year at Oklahoma State was better, but he still was his toughest critic.
“He expected so much from himself,” Shari Wolff said.
But this season, especially this spring, Wolff has transformed. Yes, he carries a mountain of expectations – and deservedly so – but he no longer puts his entire self-worth into his scorecard.
“My identity I thought was in golf, and that’s all it was, that’s all anyone knew me by,” Wolff said. “That might be all people still know me by, but to myself, I wanted to be known by more than that.”
Now, Wolff is also known as an NCAA individual champion. Much of this week’s field at Blessings Golf Club eliminated themselves before the tournament started – it was too long (7,550 yards), too tough, too quirky. Not Wolff. He opened his week with a back-nine 40 before playing his final 63 holes in 12 under.
His power game overpowered Blessings. But he also knew how to take punches. When he’d get in tough spots, he’d find a way to persevere – like the back bunker better known as dead on the par-3 13th hole. He opened the face of his wedge, took a mammoth cut and splashed out to 5 feet before saving par. Or the tap-in birdie at the par-5 10th after making back-to-back bogeys and seeing his lead shrink to just three shots.
“I think that's going to show a lot more character than going out and not missing a shot and playing four spectacular rounds,” Wolff said. “To be able to go out there and struggle a little bit and then bring it back … the last three days really gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of my career.”
Wolff’s immediate goal is to lead Oklahoma State back through the NCAA match-play bracket and to another national championship. The next goal is pro golf. His brother, Eli, who graduated from Virginia Tech last week, drove to Stillwater from Blacksburg to help Matt move out of his place before they all headed to Fayetteville. Wolff’s new home will be in Jupiter, Fla., where he’ll be able to lean on several established PGA Tour pros, including another mentor, former Oklahoma State great Rickie Fowler.
He’ll always have a home in Stillwater, though.
“OSU has been the best thing that’s ever happened to him,” Shari Wolff said. “The coaches, the teammates, they’re unbelievable. He’s not leaving. He’s leaving but he’s not. This is his family for life.”
Wolff is ready for this next step. He’s ready for the big stage, the spotlight, the attention – and he’s prepared to handle it. Yes, he’s got all the talent in the world, but he also has perspective, and maturity, and humility.
“To put my identity in Christ and know that there’s a lot more to me than just a golfer, it took the pressure away from golf,” Wolff said. “This isn’t all I have; I have my family, my friends, my religion, and my beliefs are really important to me. It’s given me a lot better purpose, and I’ve been a lot happier, a lot more at peace and content with my life lately, and it’s just made golf and every single day a lot better.”
Especially days like Monday.