Matthew Wolff brings his unique game to the PGA TOUR with pro debut at Travelers Championship
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Matthew Wolff brings his unique game to TOUR as he makes pro debut at Travelers Championship
Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
Matthew Wolff's 2019 swing analysis
Editor's note: Matthew Wolff, 20, won the 2019 3M Open with an eagle on the final hole to beat Bryson DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa by one shot.
Instagram followers and clubhead speed are meaningless metrics if not accompanied by victories. Combining all three, though, can be the recipe for an alluring prospect.
This week’s Travelers Championship is Matthew Wolff’s first tournament as a professional. It may be the most anticipated pro debut in a decade. The consensus collegiate player of the year combines charisma with a swing that is identifiable from a few fairways over.
“He wins. He’s unique. His swing is different, so it catches everybody’s eye,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. “And then there’s the incredible speed.
“When you see somebody with speed … it gets your attention.”
Wolff has drawn comparisons to another player who starred in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for two years before making the leap to the pro ranks: Rickie Fowler.
Both players built unique, unfettered swings on modest Southern California courses. Their games were showcased well before they turned pro, thanks to social media and the increased coverage of amateur golf on television.
Wolff has one thing Fowler lacked, though: eye-popping length. His 340-yard tee shots attract casual fans, while his on-course success impresses the more discerning aficionados.
Wolff won this year’s Jack Nicklaus and Fred Haskins awards, the two trophies honoring the top player in the college game. He won six times and his 68.7 scoring average was the lowest in the history of college golf. His five-shot win at the NCAA Championship was the largest victory margin in that event since 2004.
He was introduced to wider audience at last year’s NCAA Championship, when he holed a 15-foot birdie putt to clinch the national title on Oklahoma State’s home course, Karsten Creek. The match-play championship has become popular viewing among hardcore fans because of the inherent drama that match play produces.
The star-studded Cowboys team was under pressure to end a 12-year title drought. Having home-course advantage only added to the expectations. Wolff lifted the burden by making that putt in front of hundreds of orange-clad fans encircling Karsten Creek’s 15th green.
It was a clutch finish to a season when he won the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman. He started his sophomore campaign by winning his first four starts. His amateur career reached a crescendo at the recent NCAA Championship, when he won by five shots despite shooting 40 on his first nine holes. He was 14 under on the next 63 holes. Only four other players finished under par. The average score that week exceeded 76 strokes.
“Obviously, he had a lot of pressure, but when you’re good and you’re playing good golf, there’s really not much to deal with,” said Oklahoma State teammate Viktor Hovland, who’s also making his pro debut this week. “You bomb it 330 down the middle. You don’t have to think much, you just kind of see it, react and do it.”
There’s a new highly-hyped prospect every year. Many never meet the expectations. This debut feels different. It’s about more than his on-course performance. Wolff is a potential star for an age obsessed with authenticity. He’s faced criticism about his unique action, but now he’s reaping the rewards after resisting calls to conform to the norms of golf instruction.
“He has that same sort of carefree attitude that great athletes have,” Chamblee said. “That freedom, the uncluttered mind.”
He’s also the poster child for a groundswell in golf instruction, bringing to the mainstream a movement that’s mostly played out on social media among a hardcore niche of swing enthusiasts.
“I would call us disruptors,” said Wolff’s swing instructor, George Gankas. “It’s not by intention. It’s what works.”
Golf is undergoing a transformation similar to the one seen in baseball. The importance of distance has been further reinforced by advanced statistics, and technology has revealed new ways to achieve it. The orthodoxy of instruction is undergoing rapid change as aesthetics become less important than launch-monitor readings.
“We can measure things better and there are more smart people in golf instruction now than ever,” said Charles Howell III. Like Wolff, he turned pro to much fanfare after winning an NCAA title at Oklahoma State. Howell, who’s visited a variety of instructors during a pro career that’s lasted nearly two decades, is qualified to offer an informed perspective on instruction.
“The cool thing is I think they’re asking better questions, which is what matters. ’What did the greats do?’ as opposed to a theoretical model that I don’t necessarily think has been correct.”
Social media, the domain of puppy photos and scenic panoramas, also has been a gathering place for golf nerds to discuss the latest discoveries about the golf swing. Instructors use the platforms to promote their work, as well. Few have done that better than Gankas. He dissects his students’ swings and explains drills in brief videos on Instagram. His reputation for helping players increase their swing speed has gained him more than 145,000 followers on that platform (Wolff has nearly 45,000 of his own). Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott, Sung Kang and Danny Lee are among the PGA TOUR players who’ve sought him out.
Wolff has been compared to Cameron Champ, but with a more well-rounded game. Champ used prodigious driving distance to succeed at the start of his rookie season. He was sixth in the FedExCup after the fall portion, winning the Sanderson Farms Championship and posting two other top-10s. His pace has slowed this year, though. He injured his back in March and has struggled with his iron play.
Oklahoma State head coach Alan Bratton points to two shots from the NCAA Championship to illustrate Wolff’s shotmaking versatility. In the same round, Wolff used an 8-iron to hit approach shots from 150 and 208 yards.
“Everyone talks about his driver, but his biggest asset is his iron play and putting,” Bratton said.
Length has always been an asset. Mark Broadie’s Strokes Gained statistics helped quantify the advantage, though. Players can ride a hot putter to victory one week, but long hitters have an advantage week-in and week-out. The scoring advantage of having a 120-yard approach versus a 140-yarder may be small, but those incremental advantages add up over the course of weeks, months and years.
Wolff played his first PGA TOUR event at this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. He impressed with a 67 in his first round before fading to 50th place. He was third in driving distance (325.4 yards), trailing only Bubba Watson and Ollie Schniederjans. Wolff’s clubhead speed of 125.8 mph was second only to Champ. Wolff reached 131 mph in the second round at TPC Scottsdale.
“Occasionally someone comes along who is uncorrupted and they’re called freaks. They’re dismissed as freak talents,” Chamblee said. “They have a way of dismissing genius for convenience’s sake because it doesn’t fit their model or aesthetic.
“Here comes Matt Wolff, here comes George Gankas, here comes a bunch of golfers who are going to change the game. They’re going to hit it 20-30 yards past what we thought were the longest players and they’re going to have an advantage.”
Wolff’s swing has inspired enough copycats, especially among Gankas’ students, that people have assumed it is a model that Gankas tries to squeeze his students into. Wolff developed that move before coming to Gankas during his freshman year of high school. Now, after seeing the results and the power that it produces, students are asking Gankas to teach them to swing like his star student.
At the top of the backswing, the former baseball player is reminiscent of another natural talent who took his sport by storm at a young age: Ken Griffey Jr. The front heel is lifted off the ground, the trail elbow is separated far from the body and their chosen implement points past their head.
Wolff is unaware that his swing is a deviation from the norm, though.
“It’s pretty natural,” he said. “I didn’t try and swing that way. If no one ever filmed my swing, and I never saw my swing, I would think I took it straight back and straight through.”
Plenty of people have seen his swing on film. Wolff was one of the students who convinced Gankas to open an Instagram account. The instructor has become a Pied Piper among junior golfers around Westlake Village, a suburb located about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles, because he combines a Southern California skater’s ethos with instruction based in biomechanics. That his home base is a modest 5,000-yard course with artificial turf mats and striped range balls only adds to his appeal.
“He’s the only one I trust with my swing,” Wolff said. Gankas, who isn’t afraid to give lessons in sandals or an untucked shirt, isn’t concerned with conforming. Many of the unique traits in Wolff’s swing were employed by the game’s greats but fell out of fashion in recent decades, a time period that Chamblee calls the dark ages of instruction. The pursuit of aesthetically-pleasing swings led to restricted actions.
Wolff swings without restraint.
It starts with his final move before taking the club back. He bounces gently on his feet, rotates his hips and shoulders open, and takes one last glance at his target. It’s a trigger move reminiscent of Sam Snead.
The raised left heel and flying right elbow were employed by Jack Nicklaus. Having the clubhead pointed across the line stores up power to be unleashed at the moment it matters most: impact.
Wolff “flattens” the shaft at the start of the downswing, which allows him to turn through impact without restriction or compensation.
“People with really funky golf swings, if they make it to the TOUR, they have to be so mentally tough at a young age to resist the temptation to give in to conformity,” Chamblee said. “They have a golf swing that works and they know it works. And then they have the mental toughness from having to deal with all the scorn and questions and scrutiny.
“You put those together and that’s a hell of a combination for longevity. He has a chance to be a big-time major winner.”
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.