Matthew Wolff is so good that as a freshman at Oklahoma State, he received a vote for the Haskins Award as the best college player without even winning a tournament.
There’s a little more to the story.
And it starts long before Wolff went from NCAA champion to PGA Tour winner in a span of six weeks.
Scott Verplank, famous for winning the U.S. Amateur and a PGA Tour event while still in school at Oklahoma State, was in the mix at the Memorial in 2001 until heavy rain arrived and made Muirfield Village soggy and long. On the par-5 fifth hole, Verplank decided against 3-wood from 255 yards over the water.
He was playing alongside Tiger Woods, who pulled a 2-iron.
“He hit a shot like only he can hit - straight up in the air and it drops onto the green,” Verplank said. “I said to my caddie (Scott Tway), ‘I couldn’t hit that shot if you gave me any club in the bag and a tee.’ I couldn’t sky a driver as nice as that 2-iron. That shot … I’ll never forget that shot.”
Woods went on to win by seven.
Seventeen years later, Wolff walked up to Verplank at Oak Tree and introduced himself, and they played nine holes. The kid got Verplank’s attention. And then a few months later with the NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Verplank went out to watch.
He showed up on the ninth hole in time to see Wolff facing 248 yards into the 623-yard par 5.
“He hit a 4-iron and it looked like the same shot Tiger hit,” Verplank said. “It landed 3 feet from the hole and rolled out a foot-and-a-half. I had only seen that one time before. Only one other player in my life had hit that shot.”
Verplank had run into a member from the Haskins Award committee, who asked if he would be voting as a past winner (1986).
He wrote Wolff’s name on the ballot.
“The guy says, ‘He hasn’t won a tournament,’” Verplank said. “I said: ‘Doesn’t matter. He’s the best kid out there.’ It may have been the only vote he got last year.”
Wolff won six times his sophomore year, including the NCAA title, his last tournament as an amateur. He won the Haskins Award, along with the Jack Nicklaus Award. His NCAA individual title complemented the team title the Cowboys won his freshman year, so he turned pro.
Three tournaments later, Wolff made a 25-foot eagle putt from the collar of the 18th green for a 65 and a one-shot victory in the 3M Open. That gives him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a schedule next year that starts in Kapalua and takes him to The Players Championship, the Masters and the PGA Championship.
And the 20-year-old Californian will be followed along with high expectations for no other reason than the company he keeps.
The first player since Woods to win an NCAA title and a PGA Tour event in the same year.
The youngest player to win on the PGA Tour since Jordan Spieth.
“Matt Wolff is potentially special,” Verplank said. “He’s got everything it takes to be at the top. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Obviously, these others kids are good, too.”
Right after Wolff made his eagle putt, Collin Morikawa nearly made his from slightly closer that would have forced a playoff. He had to settle for a 30 on the back nine, and the runner-up finish gave him special temporary membership on the PGA Tour.
Not to be overlooked is Viktor Hovland, the U.S. Amateur champion and Wolff’s teammate at Oklahoma State. The low amateur at the Masters and the U.S. Open, he has tied for 13th in his last two PGA Tour starts.
“People were asking me about that the last three or four weeks,” Verplank said. “I said Viktor is a better player right now. He plays his game better, he’s more mature. But Matt, in my opinion, has a chance to be in the Phil Mickelson-Tiger Woods level.”
That’s a lot of hype, but it’s nothing new.
Jon Rahm must feel old at 24. It was only three years ago that Rahm earned a PGA Tour card in just four starts, and he won in his 12th start as a pro. Some six hours before Wolff won in Minnesota, Rahm shot 62 to win the Irish Open for his seventh victory worldwide. That doesn’t include his singles win over Woods in the Ryder Cup, which felt as good as any individual title.
Verplank’s write-in vote last year didn’t keep Norman Xiong from winning the Haskins Award. Xiong was supposed to be the next big thing in golf, and still might be. At the moment, he’s not among the top 150 in the minor leagues and faces Q-school just to get status on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“It’s just everyone is looking for that new thing, the new player coming up,” Wolff said. “That was Jordan Spieth a couple of years ago. John Rahm was in that. There’s always that new guy.”
And now it’s him.
It takes more than one week to make a star, and Wolff seems to get that. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the increasing number of college players who quickly put themselves in the conversation.
“The hype, it’s cool. But it’s all just talk, really,” Wolff said. “It’s what you believe in, what you step up to the tee have going through your mind.”
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