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Not-so lone Wolff: NCAA champ so much more than just golf

2019 - Matthew Wolff, Oklahoma State
Jack Dempsey, NCAA Photos

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.”


NCAA Men’s Championship: Individual scoring | Team scoring


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.


The 'Oh s---' factor: Meet Matthew Wolff

STILLWATER, Okla. – The kid with the funky swing was leading a Ventura County junior event – again – and the local head pro finally decided to intervene. It wasn’t enough that Matthew Wolff’s strikes were as pure as gold, his range sessions appointment viewing. But he was whipping all of the Tour wannabes with their perfect, factory-built swings, and that didn’t compute, so the pro cautioned Wolff that this form, with that action, was temporary. “He said that he wanted to give lessons to me, because he said that he could ‘fix me,’” Wolff recalls. “He said my swing wouldn’t last.” Then he sighed, clearly still miffed. “That’s been a common theme.” His doubters have gone awfully quiet now.   The Oklahoma State sophomore has exploded into one of the most fascinating and exciting prospects in golf, responding to every so-called swing guru with the ultimate rebuttal: Low scores.  Awards.  Trophies.  To thrive in this era of Internet trolling, Wolff has needed a refreshing, new-school coach and skin thicker than Kevlar, but there’s a hint of satisfaction in his voice as he recounts some of his past skeptics.  “To be able to prove them all wrong,” he says, “motivates me just a little bit more.” Not since Rickie Fowler has a 19-year-old possessed such appealing attributes: the eye-catching swing and monster game, the unmistakable swagger and dynamic personality.  Wolff has become the face of college golf.  And maybe soon the pro game, too. “He brings so much to the table,” says his swing coach, George Gankas, “and you can tell in his charisma, the way he hits the ball, the way he carries himself. If he plays like I know he can play, like, oh s---, he’s going to be such a huge disruptor.”  Your browser does not support iframes. AT THE TOP OF HIS BACKSWING, Wolff is up on his left toe, and his club is across the line, like a slugger sitting on a 95-mph fastball. Indeed, it’s a move borrowed from his brief baseball career, when he was a standout shortstop who played on a 12-and-under travel team that wound up competing for a national title in Cooperstown, N.Y. (Wolff even pitched the final innings.) But the team-first ethos on the diamond never quite jibed with Wolff’s makeup. “He’s very sensitive,” says his mother, Shari. “When he’d mess up, he felt really bad letting the team down. He’d rather be in charge and be the dictator of his own performance.” That pushed Wolff even further toward golf, where the same athleticism that made him a stud leadoff hitter, shooting guard and quarterback allowed him to create ridiculous clubhead speed and power. Self-taught, he experienced near-immediate success at the junior level, so he didn’t bother tinkering.  “If I never saw what my swing looked like,” he says, “I’d think that I swung it straight back and straight through.” Shari’s job as an office manager and bookkeeper didn’t provide Wolff the opportunity to join the ritzy private clubs in the area, so he played when and where he could, bouncing around the public tracks near the family’s home in Agoura Hills, California, about 45 minutes northwest of Los Angeles. “He always had trouble having a place to go,” Shari says. “I felt really bad about it, but we didn’t have the money. He’s had to fight for everything he’s got.” To compete nationally, Wolff dipped into the college fund that his grandmother set aside for him each year. Playing the AJGA circuit was expensive, so he traveled as frugally as possible: booking multi-stop flights, taking Uber to the course, sharing rooms with other competitors. If not more glamorous, high school golf at least offered some structure. Westlake Golf Club became the home base for the team, and it was there that Wolff first began seeing Gankas, the tech-savvy coach who in recent years has become a swing whisperer to the stars.  Gankas, 47, oozes SoCal chill in a flat-bill cap and flip-flops, but out of Westlake he ran the No. 1 junior program in the country. After school, kids battled to swing the fastest, smash drives the farthest and play best-of-five series at sharpshooting targets. Perhaps it was no surprise that Wolff’s Westlake teams became the first in the state to win back-to-back titles.  Still, Westlake is an unusual starting point for a revolution. It’s a modest, par-67 layout, with bumpy greens, a limited short-game area and a turf-mat range. A fence borders the property 310 yards away, and Wolff and another high school teammate routinely sailed drives onto the busy 101 Freeway. “I’d have to tell him, ‘Dude, you’re going to kill somebody,’” Gankas says. “The cops would come over and ask: ‘Who is hitting driver?’” After enough calls, Wolff – one of the top-ranked talents in the country – was forced to practice with limited-flight balls. Even though his peers marveled at his shot quality, Wolff desperately searched for validation. The head pro’s stinging criticism years earlier lingered and left him questioning his direction. “He always wanted to know what people thought of him,” says former Westlake teammate Spencer Soosman, who now plays at Texas. “He didn’t know how good he was.” But Wolff found a perfect match in Gankas, who was secure enough not to overhaul a natural swing that had proven successful. “I loved it when I first saw it,” Gankas says. “I was like, 'This is sick.' I thought for three weeks about changing some of those things, but then I said, ‘F--- it, I’m not changing this kid.’” Your browser does not support iframes. EVEN CASUAL GOLF FANS don’t need the Konica Minolta Biz Hub Swing Vision Camera to discern that Wolff’s action is different than most. He starts by bumping into his left leg and shimmying – a swing trigger that began after he broke his collarbone in 2015, as a reminder to open his shoulders and hips before impact. Then he takes the club back vertically.  Then he gets to the top, makes a full turn and crosses the club across the line, with a high right elbow. Then uses his pivot to slot the club on the downswing. And finally he opens up, hard, using the ground for power and nearly jumping out of his size-10 1/2 spikes. View this post on Instagram @matthew_wolff5 first day back A post shared by George Gankas (@georgegankasgolf) on Aug 9, 2018 at 4:50pm PDT “It’s basically a more athletic motion,” Gankas says. “We’re not putting him in positions and trying to make it perfect, like a math equation, or try to make him like a machine. He’s not a machine. He’s an athlete.” Wolff’s revolutionary swing produces a distinct thwack at impact and mind-blowing results on TrackMan: swing speed as high as 134 mph, ball speed that tops 190, drives that sail 350 yards. Throughout the swing his left foot comes off the ground and then replants – a move similar to what you’d find on the World Long Drive circuit. A biomechanist from Cal State Fullerton recently found that Wolff generated the most vertical force of any player ever measured on his Swing Catalyst; he digs into the turf so hard, and generates so much torque, that he literally rips up the grass underneath him. “It all works as one,” Wolff says. “I think a lot of people get really mechanical and feel like they have to be in certain places in their swings. For me, it’s more of a natural movement. I don’t really think of things when I swing. I just swing.” It’s not all uncontrolled power, either. Wolff hit 80 percent of his fairways last fall, with a 300-plus average. “For distance combined with accuracy, I don’t know how you could be better, really,” Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton says. “It’s like walking around with a video game. You just tell him where to go and he does it.” It was Wolff and a few of his high school teammates who persuaded Gankas to start his Instagram account (@georgegankasgolf), which now boasts more than 110,000 followers. At first, Gankas used the site to post dozens of trophy shots of his students, like a proud papa, but as his popularity exploded he began to include slow-motion swing videos. Naturally, Wolff’s was the most unorthodox, and the various backswing positions were so unusual – at least compared to the cookie-cutter swings on the junior tours – that he became a lightning rod for criticism. “He eventually just said, ‘I can’t look at the comments anymore. It’s too hard,’” Shari Wolff says. “Especially when you’re younger, you don’t want to hear people criticize you. But once it was proven over and over and over again, he thought to himself, 'Hmm, I must be doing something right.' There’s a level of logic that feeds into it: 'It can’t be that bad if I’m so good.'” So good, in fact, that Wolff reached the finals of both the U.S. Junior and AJGA Polo, and dominated the local Toyota Tour Cup series, gaining a fervent following on YouTube and social media. In late 2014, Bratton was hosting a potential recruit for lunch at Karsten Creek when the junior began talking about a tournament he’d just played in Southern California. He casually mentioned that the winner there had shot a course-record 61 in the final round, blowing away the field by 13. “Oh, really?” Bratton said, inching forward in his seat. “What was his name?” Within a few weeks, Bratton sent then-assistant Brian Guetz on a scouting mission.  After watching Wolff for a few swings, Guetz texted his boss: “Wait until you see this. You’re going to love it.” Your browser does not support iframes. AFTER INITIALLY COMMITTING TO stay close to home at Southern Cal, Wolff instead switched to Oklahoma State, the most storied program in men’s college golf. More than the allure of championships, OSU offered something that Wolff had longed for growing up – a world-class training facility. Karsten Creek Golf Club is essentially the team’s personal playground, with a dedicated staff equipped to handle all of their needs, from chefs and physiotherapists to an impeccable practice area and a punishing, Tom Fazio-designed course that recently hosted the NCAA Championships. “He finally became a country-club kid,” Shari Wolff says. “He has everything you’d ever need to be successful.” To his teammates, at least, Wolff’s swing is the least interesting thing about him.  At a business-like program that cranks out Tour types and demands discipline – players must shave on the road and own a 3.0 GPA to play the tournament in Hawaii – Wolff is unapologetically himself: extroverted and demonstrative, oozing jock swagger. After a recent interview, he shadowboxed the team’s sports information director, initiated conversations with, “What up, G?”, howled at a hilarious Instagram post, described a solid strike as “Purina” and pinned his assistant coach against the wall, as if scrapping for a puck along the boards. “He has this magnetic personality that people gravitate toward,” Shari Wolff says. “He pulls you into his universe, and you kinda want to be there.” Last fall, Wolff began to tire of the sheltered, 24/7 nature of elite college golf. A member of the OSU team hasn’t been a part of Greek life in two decades, but Wolff convinced Bratton that him and roommate Austin Eckroat should be allowed to join Phi Gamma Delta. As honorary members, they skipped the usual pledge activities, and they’re now officially frat boys, partaking in events like The Islander – where they rent out a sand lot by the lake, light tiki torches and blast country music to bring the “beach” to the heartland – and hooping in the annual rivalry game/fundraiser against Sigma Nu. “His golf swing explains his personality,” Eckroat says. “He’s just different from everybody else.” Your browser does not support iframes. THOSE WHO HADN’T FOLLOWED Gankas’ Instagram account finally got their first look at Wolff in May.   It’d already been a banner year before the NCAA Championship – four runners-up, first-team All-American, Phil Mickelson Award winner as the nation’s top freshman – but the six days in Stillwater were Wolff’s coming-out party in front of a national TV audience. The breathtaking speed, the titanium-denting power, the flair for the dramatic – they were all on display at Karsten Creek, as Wolff powered Oklahoma State in stroke play and then went 2-1 in match play as the Cowboys captured their 11th NCAA title (and first since 2006).  It takes three points for a team to win the championship, but it’s Wolff’s match that will be immortalized. Against Alabama’s Davis Riley, Wolff put on a near-flawless driving display, knocked down flags and rolled in clutch putts, none bigger than the national-title clincher in front of roughly 2,000 orange-clad fans.  That star-making performance didn’t surprise Soosman, Wolff’s old Westlake teammate: “He enjoys having all eyes on him, being the center of the show – that’s kind of who he is.” “If that’s the first impression that the world got of him,” Bratton says, “that’s a great start.” A wrist injury derailed his summer plans, but Wolff has been better than ever over the past two months. Winless since his sophomore year of high school, he has gone on a tear this fall, earning medalist honors at his first three tournaments while playing one of the country’s most difficult schedules. No longer does he have to wonder about his place in the college golf hierarchy; he’s ranked No. 1. “His upside, I don’t think you can put a limit on it,” OSU assistant Donnie Darr says. “There’s not a weakness in his game.” In fact, Wolff has been such a smashing success that, now, others are starting to copy him. Wolff’s swing is a frequent talking point during Gankas’ $350-an-hour lessons at Westlake, and one of his students, Web.com Tour player Johnny Ruiz, recently adopted Wolff’s action. Another Gankas disciple is trying to crack the Challenge Tour in Europe but recently became so demoralized after watching a Wolff stripe show that he pondered retirement. “It’s so stupid when people say it’s not going to last, or that it’s a terrible swing,” Soosman says. “It’s what’s normal to him. It’s going to last. It already has.” Your browser does not support iframes. WOLFF’S CULT-HERO FOLLOWING has created an interesting dynamic, as he’s the rare college golfer with at least some semblance of Internet fame. Up-and-coming talents used to toil away in anonymity, accumulating experience, but with Wolff’s high profile, each start is dissected and projected. It’s pro training, a few years early. The feverish activity that surrounds Wolff reminds Bratton of another former Oklahoma State legend, and the parallels with Fowler – a Southern California kid with a unique swing who bonded, trusted and emboldened his instructor – are interesting to consider. “He had an exciting style of golf,” says Bratton, who was an assistant coach for the two years that Fowler played for the Cowboys. “When I was recruiting him, I had a plan to go watch other people, but I couldn’t stop watching Rickie. Matt had a similar trait. It’s fun to watch him play. He does things that other guys can’t do.” Fowler returns to Stillwater a few times a year for various events, and in the spring he hosted the team at his house in South Florida. Wolff said they immediately hit it off. “I feel like me more than most people have a connection to him,” he says. “Everything you see with him, I have an ability to do, and it really motivates me and drives me. I want to be in his shoes someday.” It remains to be seen whether Wolff will possess the same mass appeal, but Bratton can’t think of a better role model for him – a fan favorite who plays a flashy brand of golf all his own, who interacts easily with everyone from CEOs to young fans, who hasn’t let the unrelenting grind of Tour life dull his enthusiasm for the sport.  “Our counsel for Matt will be, like Rickie, to continue to look like the same little kid as when you started,” Bratton says. “Don’t let the world make this so important that it’s not fun anymore, because that’s what’s going to draw people to him – the joy that he plays the game with and the style of play that he has. It’s exciting. It’s fun. He makes a lot of birdies and does it looking like he’s enjoying himself, and not everyone does that.  “I think golf fans are going to love him.” Yeah, it’s all love now, which is funny to those who have grown up watching Wolff play, who have seen the torrent of social-media criticism, who have heard the other parents, players and professionals dismiss him. Because they already know – all it usually takes is one swing, one round, one tournament to become a believer. To recognize that Wolff has the goods. “They’ve talked s--- for six years,” Gankas says, “but then once they see him hit the ball, it’s all good and he’s the greatest and they say it’s one of the purest moves on the planet.  “I know for a fact that he’s going to change the world of golf. People are going to lose their minds.” 



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.