Matthew Wolff's refreshing approach to managing expectations in 2020
KAPALUA, Hawaii — Matthew Wolff has been afraid of heights since he slipped off a ski lift chair when he was 8.
The heights of golf, however, he’s not hesitant to scale.
Wolff is just seven months into his professional career, so there’s much for him still to learn and much for us to learn about him. But one thing we already know of the two-time collegiate All-American is that despite his age—at 20 he was the youngest player in the field at the just-completed Sentry Tournament of Champions—and the unorthodox swing, he has a few important things figured out.
After shooting an even-par 73 at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort on Sunday, Wolff finished T-12 with a seven-under 285. He wasn’t at all disappointed in his closing effort on a breezy day along the west Maui mountains, rallying from some early mistakes that led to making the turn two over par.
“I felt like I was pretty patient out there,” said Wolff, the second-youngest ever to compete, after Jordan Spieth, in the winner’s only PGA Tour event. “I didn’t have a lot of putts drop, but you know, with how windy it was, it was hard to make anything, so I was kind of surprised how low the scores were, to be honest,” he said. “I knew it was gettable with not a lot of wind, but I was pretty pleased with how I played … and I finished even par in 25 to 35 mph winds.”
Career-wise Wolff has had the wind at his back, but that is mostly by design. The California native has taken every next step carefully and with calculating efficiency. He didn’t turn professional last June because he was in a hurry to play on the PGA Tour, even though that has been his goal for a long time. He made sure he was prepared. And that he felt prepared.
“My dream was always to be a PGA Tour player,” Wolff said. “I was realistic with myself, even in high school I was playing really good and was nationally ranked as a junior golfer, but it’s still so hard. I was always realistic, like, ‘I’m going to put in the work and I don’t want to look back and be like, I could have worked harder and regret it.’
“I kind of just did what Tiger Woods did,” Wolff added. “I never really moved up in age groups [as a kid]. I just wanted to dominate the one I was in. … I would make sure that I wasn’t just a fluke, I would want to win and learn how to win. And then you move up.”
Wolff played just two seasons for Oklahoma State. As a freshman in 2018 he helped the Cowboys win the NCAA Division I title. In his sophomore season, he won six times, including the NCAA individual title at the Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark. The Cowboys, however, lost in the semifinals of the team competition. Wolff figured there wasn’t much left to do collegiately. It was time to move up again.
“Once I got into college, that kind of sparked me that I can actually do this and can play against the best at each level, so if I just keep on improving and working hard, I don’t see why I can’t play against the best at the highest level,” he said.
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Wolff quickly proved he could play against the best at the highest level, winning in just his third start as a professional at the 3M Open in Minnesota in early July.
Clearly, he had a good grasp of his own learning curve. And he still does. That’s significant.
Wolff, whose next start is at The American Express next week in Palm Springs, Calif., won’t panic into thinking he has more to prove in 2020 or has to win again to validate his maiden victory. Ranked 98th in the world, Wolff is assessing his progress not by high finishes, but rather by a high-gloss finish to his game.
The plan is simple: improve, just as he did in college.
“I do have a lot of confidence, internally, in my game, but I don’t show it. But I want to walk on the tee like Brooks [Koepka] does where he just looks like he knows he’s the best player. Rory [McIlroy] walks that way. You can tell that they think they’re the man,” Wolff said. “Right now, though, I just want to feel like I’m getting better. If I’m honest with myself, I feel like if I got better and I know I got better, then that’s a successful season. I’m not going to say that if I had two wins this year but I finish, whatever on the FedEx [Cup] and drop [back], and I look at all my stats and they’re down, then I know it wasn’t really a good year. I just had two good weeks. You look at the best players, they’re consistent. They’re up there week after week after week.”
These next few weeks will be fun for Wolff, as he’ll stay in California and practice out of Sherwood Country Club, where he has an honorary membership. He’ll also hang out with family and friends in between playing every West Coast event except the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
In addition to being a good player, Wolff wants to grow the game. He wants to help make it a cooler sport. When he was younger, he didn’t always feel like a cool kid because he played golf, something fellow California native Xander Schauffele also admitted to at Kapalua. At 20, and an exempt tour player, Wolff is more inclined to—and capable of—connecting with junior players and fans.
“Golf is a great game, and you know, it is a gentleman’s game and so many people play it, but I’m trying to get more kids and make it more fun instead of, you know, being looked at as kind of like a country club sport,” he said. “I want it to be a more popular sport. Golf can reach such a broad spectrum, but it’s just not quite there yet.”
Wolff isn’t quite there yet, either, but he’s not worried. He’s just working on one day being the man. That would be the height of success.