CROMWELL, Conn. — A recurring and somewhat troubling thought ran through my head as Matthew Wolff prepared to take the opening shot of his professional career: Why aren't more people paying attention?!
To be clear, the first-round crowds at the 2019 Travelers Championship were great, although perhaps a little thinned around the first tee when Wolff arrived for his 1:40 tee time at TPC River Highlands. After all, there were several marquee groups a few holes ahead and there had been intermittent rain all day. Admittedly, I live in a bit of a Golf Twitter bubble, but, still. . . Doesn't anyone want to see history?!
"This kid is going to be a player," a fan snapping photos on his iPhone remarked. "People just don't realize it yet."
OK, so I wasn't crazy. And there were other witnesses specifically there to see one of the most highly anticipated pro debuts since Tiger Woods. But I'm guessing there was a bit more of a buzz at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open. Hello,
Like Woods 23 years ago, Wolff is turning pro off a spectacular sophomore season in college. The Oklahoma State Cowboy won six times, including the individual NCAA title. By five shots. His decision to turn pro was accompanied by a hype video created by his equipment sponsor, TaylorMade. And his unorthodox swing already has kids copying it.
But there wasn't much sizzle to his start on a gloomy Thursday at TPC River Highlands. The grandstands—more like stands—that surround the first tee and seat 200 people tops were about half full. To be sure, serious golf fans were aware of the situation, including the one who shouted, "GANKAS!" when Wolff's notorious swing coach, George Gankas, showed up to give him a final few words and a pound. Moments later, Gankas left to make an appearance on Golf Channel. Was anyone going to follow this poor kid around?
No one in attendance screamed, "WOLFF!" Although, he did receive by far the loudest ovation of his group. Then again, he was paired with Sepp Straka and Roberto Diaz. Understandably, the young man seemed a bit jittery. He fumbled with his scorecard, dropping it on the wet ground and wiping it on his pants, and he politely applauded when his playing partners were announced first. Then he stepped up to the tee, did that pronounced waggle of his hips and shoulders, pulled the trigger on that unique swing, and hit his golf ball. . . somewhere.
"He sure does a lot of dancing," a middle-aged man remarked. That's one way to put it.
A small group of fans, let's call them the Wolffpack, followed their hero as he made his way down the fairway then took a sharp turn. The powerful Wolff had sent his first shot as a pro about 50 yards left down a bank and near the tournament's fan zone. Pro tip, Matthew: there are easier ways to try to attract a bigger crowd.
While Wolff is a new face on tour, his caddie certainly isn't. J.P. Fitzgerald, who looped Rory McIlroy to four majors and a meteoric rise to World No. 1, has been given the reigns to the most talented golfer to arrive on the scene since, well, Rory McIlroy. And Wolff put him to work right away figuring out a yardage from a spot so far left even Bernie Sanders would feel uncomfortable.
Wolff had to feel uncomfortable himself faced with a steep climb from a bad lie to an elevated green. He took a mighty hack. . . and. . . found the front of the green. Impressive. Even more impressive?
"That was a gap wedge 140 uphill!" a fan who had overheard Wolff and Fitzgerald's interaction exclaimed. Wow.
But Wolff showed he's more than just a power hitter moments later by nearly holing a 50-footer. He tapped in for a par to start his pro career. A solid start, but if he's going to be out on tour for a while, he'd be wise to make things less stressful on himself.
On his walk to the second tee, the rain started coming down and Fitzgerald got busy again, getting the raingear out.
"I'll give you $20 for that umbrella!" a young man said to another fan. Wolff already has some seriously loyal fans.
Wolff, holding his own umbrella, stared ahead at the short par 4 before deciding to hit 3-wood. This one, he liked.
"He hit that as far as the other guy's driver!"
Actually, he hit it a good 10 yards farther than the other guy's driver. The other guy being Roberto Diaz, by the way. Wolff didn't capitalize, though, settling for a second consecutive par to start. Nearby, a roar erupted from the healthy galleries surrounding the fourth green. Phil Mickelson had made a birdie.
After watching Wolff tee off on No. 3, I began my soggy trek back in the driving rain. If this was the dawn of an era, it still felt like most fans were sleeping. But the Wolffpack will grow. And in time, it will have plenty to roar about.