The PGA's Next Great Disruptor

Matthew Wolff's swing may draw odd looks, but with a resume akin to a young Tiger Woods and a spot playing with golf's young royalty this weekend, it's time to get hyped for the real Happy Gilmore.
photo of Scott HarrisScott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 16, 2020

It's March 3 in sunny Orlando, Florida, and nothing is in the air but spring.

At least that's how it feels. Although come to think of it, the spring is only alone until it is joined by the murmurs, which follow and build around Matthew Wolff as he works his way through a Tuesday practice round ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, set to kick off later in the week.

One by one, players tee up—all pros (or at least really high-level golfers) but none resembling a household name. A small but extant gallery maybe 30 strong drifts in and out. As Wolff approaches the tee, fans watch politely but a bit blankly, maybe there for the ambience as much as anything else.

Then comes the swing.

There are odd lower-body movements. Then odd upper-body movements. Then a quick blur, a downswing filled with a sudden violence as if in the Bermudagrass he's finally spotted the spider who bit his dog. Then the golf ball vanishes.

It's less jarring to the initiated, who know the ball is perfectly safe and still with us; it has just been transported a few football fields away.

From the uninitiated, there are just murmurs.

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First, after they see the practice swing: "Hey. Hey. Did you see that guy's swing?"

Second, after the real swing: same thing, only slower and with expletives. 

The crowd begins to coalesce, and the murmurs turn to exclamations. Even the other pros get in on it.

Even more attention-grabbing: it's successful. Wolff will spend a not-insignificant portion of the round idling on the fairway, waving at the sawgrass with a short iron and shooting the breeze with his caddie while the other guys are, you know, back there.

Add up the swing and the success, and you have a potential sensation—a player who may still be unknown to many casual fans but who those within golf circles say is a big part of the future of the sport.

That's why he's the fourth in a foursome Sunday with the three signature members of golf's young elite—Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler—in the TaylorMade Driving Relief, a $3 million skins match in Juno Beach, Florida, for COVID-19 aid, being broadcast on NBC, the Golf Channel and NBCSN.

"When you look through the lens of the future of the tour, he's right there, and he's a captivating player," says Ryan Hart, the event's director. "We've seen this sometimes, whether it's [Billy] Mayfair's putting stroke or [Jim] Furyk's swing. If you gave me Matthew Wolff's swing and I could play like that, I'd take it."

No one needs to tell Wolff, only legally able to buy beer for a few weeks now, that his public profile is the lowest of the bunch. But there's also no disputing that he is really, really good.

Novelties don't win NCAA individual championships, as Wolff did last year, then two months later win on the PGA Tour, as he did in just his fourth event, draining a 26-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole to win the 3M Open. Only two other players have won NCAA and PGA Tour titles in the same year: Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods.

So he doesn't mind a big moment, then. Nor is he a one-trick pony, though it does all start with a 310-yard average off the tee that ranks 21st among 231 players on tour this year. His swing has been clocked at 135 miles per hour, with ball speed pushing 200. It may be unorthodox, but it isn't just something to be tolerated or aw-shucksed over. It's the cornerstone of his success.

Despite his newness to the tour, he's so far shown true consistency, too. All he did to put himself in position for that winning eagle was shoot a 62 on Saturday and a 65 on Sunday. He followed that with solid performances at the John Deere Classic (he finished 37th), St. Jude Invitational (24th) and Wyndham Championship (19th), closing out his rookie season with a crisp $1.39 million in earnings over just eight events. To start the 2019-20 season, he posted solid showings in the Zozo Championship (13th), QBE Shootout (sixth), Sentry Tournament of Champions (11th) and Farmers Insurance Open (21st).

None of that changes the fact that different is always weird, at least to some, and the golf world is not exactly known for a freewheeling worldview. That truth is at the heart of what makes Wolff and his swing different: He's not a golf guy—not exclusively anyway.

Matthew Wolff's unique swing has made him a curiosity on the PGA Tour while also making him one of its most compelling young stars.
Matthew Wolff's unique swing has made him a curiosity on the PGA Tour while also making him one of its most compelling young stars.Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

That's not just a metaphor, as his swing was molded by multiple sports. His first love was basketball (until I didn't grow to be 6'5"), and he nearly pursued baseball in high school before deciding to focus exclusively on golf. He's a bona fide sports junkie and follows pretty much everything. Put another way, Wolff is a jock out of central casting.

But he's the good kind of jock. He's a people person. He's talkative but not at the expense of listening. He's noticeably sure of himself—wouldn't you have to be?—but not arrogant. He also likes to talk trash (just ask Brooks Koepka). He's not one of those cool customers who is so ubiquitous in golf; he has to work not to get too pissed off at himself while he's playing. Growing up in California, he cut his teeth on a—deep inhale—public course. Even before the pandemic, he had watched The Office nine times through. And he's bound and determined to A) be the best in the world and B) get there with his swing.

There's no other conclusion to draw: Wolff is a bit of a real-life Happy Gilmore, no matter how many Shooter McGavins come after him.

No one is suggesting Wolff is a game show host-punching lunatic. But the nature of using spare parts from other sports to build a unique and highly effective swing—and having a whiff of the hoi polloi on you while you do it—is certainly something Wolff can relate to.

Wolff may lack Gilmore's signature Boston Bruins jersey, but he has his own version, which he recently donned to mourn the death of a personal hero, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. 

And to be fair, plenty of pros and fans and media members have embraced and appreciate Wolff and his swing. He is by no means a pariah. But as Wolff knows firsthand, there are some who do consider his swing unsightly, gimmicky or unsound. Weird, in other words.

To his credit, Wolff avoids the tired prove-the-doubters-wrong routine, but he doesn't play down the swing's uniqueness, either. Detractors are there, sure, as they always are when something's different. Rather than rehash the same old lines about the haters fueling his motivation or whatnot, Wolff is comfortable letting himself and his swing tell their own narrative, which includes but isn't defined by the criticism of others. The questions get a little repetitive, he says, before quickly acknowledging it's not so terrible a problem as problems go. One could say he sees the value in being different.

"When I first went pro, everyone was all over my swing," he says. "The style of my game is disruptive. I want that disruptive title on my name."

Asked to encapsulate the swing, Wolff talked through it for a while before landing on his final answer.

"Think of it like a coil."

So we will, but first things first. Wolff's grand experiment began roughly where Happy Gilmore's did: in sports outside of golf. For example, that distinctive lift of Wolff's left heel at the beginning of his motion—almost up onto his toes, in fact—is an import from his baseball days. In a golf context, the move allows him to lean slightly forward, which helps maximize torque.

"There's a really big turn with a lot of spine extension, because he's got a huge turn he can compress into and then push back off of the ground," says George Gankas, who's been Wolff's swing coach since Wolff was 13. "That's why he lifts his foot off the ground."

During a touch football game his sophomore year of high school, Wolff fractured his collarbone. After six weeks, he returned to the links but was now semi-voluntarily "protecting" the site of the injury. As a result, his stance was too closed or too far to the right, causing him to hit a lot of draws.

"I was afraid to finish my swing," he says. "George said, 'Try to feel like you're opening up beforehand, and then go into what feels comfortable.'"

To do that, Wolff incorporated a "trigger," which starts a any golf swing but in Wolff's case is a distinctive hip twist to lock in the proper position. It's emblematic of Wolff's and Gankas' approach: Rather than tear down and rebuild, they worked to maximize the functionality of what was in front of them.

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"We closed his address so it was more inside-out, but he didn't want to be in-out," Gankas says. "He was leaning and hooking. So we got into pre-impact. He asked if he could keep that trigger, and it stuck."

And that was how this whole swing thing got started. The secret of its success may well be in the backswing—the winding of the coil, so to speak. The club is cocked considerably outside Wolff's hands as it comes up, rising until it hangs almost vertically over his head with his shoulders and core twisted back.

"I take it way up with my hands, with the club pointed almost the way my feet are facing," Wolff says. "The position I'm in at the top allows me to get into position to use the ground more. The more back I turn, the more force I generate."

Now for the furious uncoiling, which happens from the ground up. The lower body rips the club downward, his wrists snapping as the club head shallows or levels out to quickly get on the right plane for impact. This is where his overall athleticism most comes into play. Wolff's lower body is tree-trunk solid; he doesn't walk so much as lumber the course, perpetually bursting through the swinging doors of an old-timey saloon. During the downswing, Wolff grinds his cleats into the sod. You can imagine groundskeepers dabbing at their eyes from afar.

"As soon as you let it go, it goes the other way and goes really fast," Wolff says. "I turn really hard and squat a little into the ground. I start the downswing pushing off the ground, and that's where the power really comes from."

The swing doesn't look like the kind of thing an ethical orthopedist is going to jump up and sing about. But Wolff and Gankas both insist there are no negative physical effects or implications, and Wolff has been injury-free since that touch football game. Regardless, Wolff has never suggested his swing would or should work for anyone else—that would go against his whole point.

All of this, and Wolff still says a Happy Gilmore comparison had never before occurred or been mentioned to him. If nothing else, it's clear he's seen the movie a few times.

"Happy Gilmore wasn't playing that well," he recalls with hilarious solemnity. "And Shooter McGavin said, 'You're not fit for this game.' And then you remember what happened from there. The message is belief and the realization that you don't have to do everything the way other people do it, as long as you put in the work. So, yeah. I can definitely see that parallel."

It's a fun story, but the reason he'll be there Sunday, and the reason so many people believe he could stay in places like that for a while, is summarized in the murmurs back in early spring, all those eons ago.

"Arnold Palmer said it best," says Hart, the tournament director. "You've got to own your own swing."

            

Scott Harris is a feature writer and columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ScottHarrisMMA.

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