Meet Nicolo Galletti, the greatest male golfer of the COVID Era
Someday, long after this madness is over, when Nicolo Galletti tells the story of the past year—the story that will include how he became the greatest golfer of the COVID-19 era—it’ll be hard to know where to begin. There were the three injuries that derailed the slim lefty for months, starting in the late summer of 2019 while he was playing on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Galletti had netted a pair of top 10s the year before, and he finished second at a tournament in Argentina that April, but while practicing in August, he felt a strange sensation in his leg that turned out to be a torn oblique. It would derail him for the entire second half of his season, and that alone would have been a tough pill to swallow for the 25-year-old who had never dealt with a serious injury or been forced to take time away from the game.
It got worse. When he came back in November to play in the second stage of the Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School, he was sitting on a bag stand watching a friend hit balls after his second round when the entire structure collapsed and he threw his arm out to catch himself. The pain wasn’t overwhelming at impact, but the next day, after a few holes in the third round, he couldn’t move his wrist. He had to withdraw and soon found out the wrist was fractured. When he tried to come back in December for the final event of the Latinoamerica Tour, in the hopes of qualifying for the Korn Ferry, it was too soon, and he finished near the bottom.
If that felt like a major stroke of bad luck, what came next was almost absurd. Galletti spent his college years at Arizona State, and his roommate was Jon Rahm. He was invited to Rahm’s wedding in late February, just as he was on the verge of returning to the game. The day before the ceremony, Rahm had a bunch of games planned for his guests. At one point during the day, Galletti and a friend put on giant novelty sumo suits and prepared for combat. Galletti didn’t want to aggravate his wrist injury, so he was on the back foot when his friend knocked him over. As he went down, he rolled his ankle, and the result was a serious sprain.
Enrique Berardi/PGA Tour
In a cursed year, this was almost too ridiculous to believe. He had to withdraw from the first Latinoamerica Tour event of the season in Mexico, and by the time he was ready to return for the second event in Argentina, the universe had different plans. The coronavirus hit, and golf was over.
The bad luck was stranger than fiction—a collapsing bag stand, a sumo-wresting accident and a global pandemic, all of them conspiring to keep him away from the game?
For Galletti, only one path remained. And as it turned out, not all golf was over.
• • •
As the coronavirus wiped out almost every sports league in America and around the world, the Outlaw Tour, a minor developmental circuit based in Arizona, lived up to its name and continued to stage its events. That attracted a good deal of attention, positive and negative, and the Outlaw leadership eagerly fed into the buzz. With no other game in town, DraftKings offered action on the tournaments, and more than 10,000 of the world’s thirstiest gamblers put money on the results. Outlaw began streaming its events on Periscope, and a Twitter account that had been dormant since 2017 came back to prolific life in late April. The action that’s ensued over the last two months has only burnished the outlaw image, from mass DQ (with no refunds) to player confrontations to the saga of a cameraman with a hangover:
The Outlaw Tour is a pay-to-play circuit of mostly 54-hole events that are contested mid-week. The entry fees are used to run events and pay out the purse, but as you see from a typical leader board, very few players make any money, and those who do will come away with almost nothing after expenses and taxes. It’s a tour for young people, and it’s about competing against other good golfers and trying to prepare for life at the next levels. The coronavirus has changed that, at least a little. Players like Alex Cejka, a former PGA Tour winner, have competed and won in the past month, and golfers from the Korn Ferry Tour and European Tour have teed it up as well.
For Galletti, the timing was perfect, and so was the location—he lives in Scottsdale with two of his teammates from Arizona State. After the string of injuries that held him back for nearly a year, he was itching to play real competitive golf. He knew Jesse Burghart, the tournament operator who also ran local money games in Arizona, and had followed the results on the website, so it was a no-brainer for him to join. Nor did COVID-19 give him any cause for concern.
“I would say the golf course is the safest place to be right now,” he said. “You’re outside, you have to leave the pins in, and you don’t have to touch anything, really. Nobody’s even shaking hands, just giving elbows, so I thought it was safe and I never had any questions about whether to play or not.”
He teed it up first at the Western Skies Classic in Gilbert, Ariz., in mid-March, but missed the 36-hole cut. The Players Championship had just been canceled after one round the previous week, so this was officially the start of the COVID-19 era in sports, and the Outlaw Tour was more or less on its own. Two weeks later, at the Verrado Founders Championship in Buckeye, Galletti made his first cut, shooting even par over two days to make it to the final round by three spots (just above Thomas Lehman, Tom Lehman’s son).
Those average finishes gave no indication of what was to come: a torrid run, yielding him very little money and almost no recognition, but nevertheless made Galletti, at that specific time, the best golfer on the planet.
• • •
Galletti grew up in Clayton, Calif., a small city in the northern part of the state about 30 miles east of Oakland. His father Roberto was born in Italy, came to America in his 20s, and designed men’s clothes for his own fashion company until he retired in the early 2010s. Nicolo’s older brother, Roberto Jr., was a talented golfer who played at UNLV and the University of Arizona, so Nicolo was on the course by the time he was 4 years old. He went to Arizona State, played under Tim Mickelson for three years and Matt Thurmond for one, and won an event in Wyoming.
If 2020 were a normal year, he would have spent the spring in Argentina and Chile playing Latinoamerica events. His father moved to Chile when he retired, which was very convenient for Nicolo. He could stay with his father between events, and his father could travel with him and serve as his caddie when the tour was deep in South America.
But normalcy was out, and Galletti had to make do with the situation he faced.
And make do he did. At the Orange Tree Classic in Scottsdale in early April, he finished second at 17 under. At the Legacy Classic a week later in Glendale, he finished third, behind only Alex Cejka and one other golfer. And the next week, at the Legacy Shootout in Phoenix, he won, beating 56 other golfers with a 64-66 two-day stretch.
Believe it or not, there are mobile leader boards on the Outlaw Tour, and you can check live scoring on your phone. In the final round at the Legacy, Galletti knew his main competitors were playing in his group, but he consulted his phone regularly to make sure nobody was making a run behind him. At some Outlaw events, they allow carts, and at others Galletti has used a caddie since his ankle hasn’t completely healed, but at the Legacy he carried his own clubs. A 31 on the front nine put him in prime position, but KK Limbhasut—another contender for king of the COVID era—made things interesting on the back nine. After a bogey on 17, Galletti’s lead was down to two, but a birdie on the last hole gave him the title.
He cooled off the next week on the newly reopened Golden State Golf Tour, a sister series to the Outlaw Tour that decided to hold events in Arizona, but not by much, finishing in 18th at 11 under. Accounting for his entire body of work, Galletti has outperformed everyone over the last six weeks, and when I asked him how it felt to have achieved the obscure historic feat of dominating his sport at one of the strangest times in American history, he laughed.
“It’s funny just to even think about,” he said, “and I’m thankful just to have the tournaments to play.”
And what about his entire year, from collapsing bag stands to sumo injuries to becoming a quarantine legend?
“This year has been super tough," he said, "and now it’s super surreal.”