Facing the ups and downs: Matthew Wolff’s journey to become college golf’s most prolific player

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Matthew Wolff stood 20 feet from the hole and victory.

The 15th hole green at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater was like an arena with Wolff standing front and center.

A sea of orange that engulfed the edge of the green supported his calm demeanor.

Wolff, then a freshman on the Oklahoma State men’s golf team, could win his match in the 2018 NCAA men’s golf championship with a birdie putt.

Wolff’s journey to becoming college golf’s most prolific player had its ups and downs. He’s overcome injuries and faced doubters because of his unusual swing.

“Walking down that hole, I knew that it was really important and every point counts,” Wolff said.

As he set up for the shot, he constantly told himself to keep calm and keep breathing. He wanted to keep his pace and not rush himself.

OSU golf coach Alan Bratton kneeled down on the green, looking at the potential breaks.

Although he was feet away from the hole, Wolff had to be perfect. Moving one inch to either side could sway the golf ball in the other direction.

After a few more looks, he was ready. Wolff aimed his putt and knocked the ball toward the hole.

With sweat dripping down his face, he watched as the ball fell into the cup. Wolff gave a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump to the applauding crowd of OSU fans.

The fans and everyone else on the 15th hole green knew something that Wolff didn’t. Not only was his birdie putt to win his match, but it was also to win the national championship.

Wolff went over and shook the hand of Alabama’s players and coaches.

When he saw all of his teammates come over and cheer with him, he knew something was wrong.

Wolff was stunned when he finally learned the news.

“I didn’t know (that putt) was to win the national championship,” Wolff said. “I just thought it was to just win my match.”

After many second-place finishes and being named Phil Mickelson Freshman of the Year, Wolff’s journey gave him what he came to OSU for: a championship.

Overcoming the pain

Before Wolff became famous in the golf world from his record-setting tournament wins and unusual swing, he was a normal teenager growing up in Agoura Hills, California.

Wolff transferred to Westlake High School in Westlake Village, California, before beginning his freshman year.

Wolff said he transferred because it was close to his father's, Bill Wolff, work. He also joked it was because Westlake had a superior golf team compared to his hometown.

From the start of Wolff’s high school career, Rick Naranjo, the Westlake High School boys golf coach, said he felt Wolff quickly fit into the team.

“They were always competing against each other,” Naranjo said.

The 2014 Westlake High School boys golf team featured five future Division I golfers.

The fierce competition between the six golfers on the team engulfed during the 2014 California Interscholastic Confederation boys golf state championship.

Wolff and Westlake dominated the competition.

Wolff finished 1-under as Westlake claimed the state title, finishing nine shots better than second place Rancho Bernardo High School.

As Westlake and Wolff began their title defense, his chance to do so was put on hiatus.

One day, Wolff and his friends decided to play a game of two-hand touch football.

All seemed normal until Wolff took a hard fall. The pain shot through his body immediately.

Wolff suffered a broken collarbone, which left him in a sling for two months.

Wolff felt not only the physical pain of his injury but also the emotional pain of being away from the one thing he loved: golf.

Left with little motivation, Wolff went home to sleep after hanging out with friends at school.

“I was just kinda out of it,” Wolff said. “Golf just takes so much out of your time. I love it, I love practicing and trying to get better at the game. But when you can’t do that, you feel lost and don’t know what you're supposed to do.”

Wolff found himself in despair as he only wanted to continue to golf.

His mother, Shari Wolff, saw how hard it was for Wolff’s daily life.

“He hated being away from golf,” Shari said. “I think the worst part was that it was two weeks before Sage Valley.”

The Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in Graniteville, South Carolina, is one of the biggest junior tournaments. Wolff was keen on staying in the tournament, but Shari wanted Wolff’s injury to heal.

To get out of his depression, Wolff worked his way through rehabilitation.

When he was finally back on the course, his love for the game grew.

Wolff has suffered less serious injuries since. His senior year, he strained his lower back, which kept him out for a couple of weeks. His freshman year at OSU, he had to deal with slight wrist pains.

Wolff said his injuries don’t define who he is. His journey through rehabilitation taught him to take things slow and not try to rush or overwork himself.

“I’ve been taking care of my body a lot better,” Wolff said. “Hopefully I will not have anymore injuries that are gonna affect me."

“I feel like I can’t do that swing unless I do that move”

Many have called his swing unusual, but Wolff describes it with one word: natural.

Wolff played baseball until he was 13. Before going into high school, he decided to fully embrace golf.

But he took elements of baseball to his golf game.

As Wolff is in his backswing, he slightly lifts up his left foot, similar to a baseball player before he swings.

“(Golf and baseball) were my two favorite sports,” Wolff said. “There might be tendencies from baseball that transfer from one sport to the other.”

Some swing coaches would immediately look at Wolff’s swing and want to change it.

But not George Gankas, Wolff’s current swing coach.

Most people don’t know who Gankas is, but in the golf world, Gankas has a growing cult following.

Gankas has more than 130,000 followers on his Instagram account, which includes videos featuring his students practicing their swings.

Gankas is one of the residential golf pros at Westlake Golf Course, the home course for Westlake High School.

One day, a 13-year-old Wolff walked up to Gankas.

“He had the biggest grin on his face and asked me, ‘Are you George Gankas?’” Gankas said.

A while later, Wolff’s dad approached Gankas about classes.

“His dad came to me first,” Gankas said. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m a little scared. Matthew is playing pretty good. He’s got a different swing, and I just wanna make sure it's a good fit.’”

Gankas watched Wolff hit many balls at Westlake’s driving range. Astonished, Gankas saw the power and momentum Wolff’s swing produced.

“When he hit it, he had this big swinging hook,” Gankas said. “I was like, ‘That’s kind of a sick swing.’ It was really crazy back then, and I was like, 'I love this kid.' Then all of a sudden, I was teaching him.”

After his first lesson with Gankas, Wolff said it was a perfect match. Gankas was in awe of Wolff’s swing and did not want to change a thing about it.

“I think he and I were a perfect fit beside that I saw well beyond what people think is well beyond an aesthetically-pleasing swing,” Gankas said.

After Wolff broke his collarbone, his normal swing became difficult. His shoulders and hips were angled differently, and he was not able to get the same power as before.

During one of his sessions, Gankas helped Wolff develop his now signature move.

Gankas told Wolff that he needed to open his hips more. Gankas moved Wolff’s hip with his hands and told him to do it a couple of times.

After repeating the move multiple times, Gankas told him to swing.

The ball sailed through the driving range.

“I was thinking why don’t I just do that every time,” Wolff said. “Now it’s more of just a trigger to get my swing started. I feel like I can’t do that swing unless I do that move.”

His trigger move became a sensation in the golf world and was featured on NBC Sports and the Golf Channel.

Gankas and Wolff’s relationship has progressed throughout Wolff’s journey as a golfer. Gankas has become part of Wolff’s family.

He has constantly told Wolff his swing is perfect while others told him that he needed to change.

Wolff still sends videos of his swings, and Gankas will post them on his Instagram. Whenever Wolff needs some advice, Gankas is one of the first people he calls.

As Shari has watched her son’s journey continue, she has thanked Gankas for the confidence he gave to Wolff.

“There was no talk of changing (his swing with Gankas),” Shari said. “And with that, Matthew got confident in his golfing ability. He was questioning himself. He’s a young teenager and everyone is telling him to change, change, change. George comes along and changes his whole mind and changes his attitude on his swing and confidence in what is individual about him.”

Branching out

Wolff’s journey almost took a different route after his freshman year of high school.

Months after Westlake won the 2014 CIF boys state golf championship, Wolff gave a verbal commitment to Southern California, a move that made sense at the time.

USC was a short 40-mile journey from his hometown. He would be near his friends, family and Gankas.

At the time, Wolff was a relatively unknown golfer compared to now. USC was the only school who offered him a scholarship. He wanted to feel safe.

“I was just thinking why not,” Wolff said. “I didn’t think I was going to get to go anywhere else.”

He had his safety net, but as he became more well-known, he had a change of heart.

If Wolff didn’t change his mind in, golf fans would see him don a cardinal and gold polo rather than an orange one.

As Wolff’s golf game improved, his fondness for USC starting to drift away.

“He wanted to give himself a little more opportunity, and I supported that completely,” Shari said.

Wolff and Naranjo talked about USC many times.

“He wasn’t that committed to USC,” Naranjo said. “When Oklahoma State invited him to come and visit, he came back to me and told me that he found his place.”

Wolff backed out of his verbal commitment to USC after his junior year. His first trip to Stillwater was for the PING Invitation at Karsten Creek back in 2016.

When he first saw the course, he was in love. Wolff said Karsten Creek challenges golfers, unlike the courses he plays at back home.

“I really like (Karsten Creek) because it really emphasized every part of your game,” Wolff said. “It's super hard. The weather’s not always perfect which is super nice. Growing up in California, the weather’s always nice and it's not hard to play in easy weather.”

Inside Karsten Creek’s clubhouse, Wolff saw the rich history of golf at OSU.

The walls of the clubhouse are lined with OSU’s accomplishments. Players would walk to the locker rooms and see the many championship trophies.

But the reason Wolff was swayed to OSU was the people.

“They’re just so friendly,” Wolff said. “They really put an emphasis on the golf team which not many other schools do. Schools that I looked at, it was always football or basketball. (At OSU) they look up to golf and I wanted to be a part of that.”

The locality of USC original felt safe to Wolff, but the history of OSU golf changed his mind.

Wolff committed to OSU on March 29, 2016.

With his second year of golf almost complete, Wolff has many achievements to look back at. This season, he set a school record with five tournament wins, OSU won its 10th Big 12 title and are hoping to make a splash in the NCAA tournament.

His journey to OSU had many stops, but Wolff wouldn’t trade the outcome for anything.

“I think the biggest thing about golf is that you have to enjoy where you’re at,” Wolff said. “You have to wanna get out and practice and get better. Especially with being the No. 1 team in the country, you’re always competing for those five spots. I think just pushes you to be better and work harder and put in that extra effort that gets you to all those accolades.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com