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Watch but be wary of these wunderkinds

When Matthew Wolff won the 3M Open last month, hundreds of teenagers and twentysomethings likely were watching

When Matthew Wolff won the 3M Open last month, hundreds of teenagers and twentysomethings likely were watching. Their inner dialogue might have sounded something like Blake Windred as he recently recounted a third-round pairing with Wolff early this year at the Australian Master of the Amateurs in Melbourne.

“It’s the mindset, obviously, because [his game] wasn’t anything I haven’t seen before,” Windred, 21, said thoughtfully during the Players Amateur. Windred shot 70 to Wolff’s 72 that day at Royal Melbourne. He finished third, one spot higher than Wolff on the final leaderboard.

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Matthew Wolff, a PGA Tour winner in only his 3rd start as a professional, makes the transition to golf’s biggest stage look easier than the reality.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Matthew Wolff, a PGA Tour winner in only his 3rd start as a professional, makes the transition to golf’s biggest stage look easier than the reality.

If Wolff can win on the PGA Tour in his third start as a professional – and lock up PGA Tour status along with a $1.152 million winner’s check in the process – then why can’t other twentysomethings do the same? It seems to be a fair question, but for college kids and teenagers watching at home – and for their parents – it’s a dangerous logic. A warning label should have scrolled across the bottom of TV coverage during the 3M Open. Caution: Winning isn't as easy as Wolff & Co. make it look.

It wasn’t just a strange weekend on the PGA Tour. The phenomenon repeated itself three weeks later. Collin Morikawa, who was runner-up to Wolff at the 3M Open, won the Barracuda, Championship, a modified Stableford event opposite the WGC FedEx St. Jude. Morikawa, 22, a recent California graduate, was making only his sixth start as a professional. He already had collected enough non-member FedEx Cup points to secure a PGA Tour card for next season, but the victory provided exempt status through 2021.

Scrutiny of Wolff & Co.’s early success comes at an interesting time as Walker Cup selections play out. The top three Americans in the World Amateur Golf Ranking already have been named to the team, but the next five Americans in the rankings have graduated from college and are remaining amateur specifically for a shot at making the team for the Sept. 7-8 matches against Great Britain and Ireland. Among those men, the decision to delay his professional start probably cost recent Stanford graduate Brandon Wu the most cash. Wu qualified for the U.S. Open and the British Open. After making the cut at Pebble Beach, he could have banked $57,853.

It’s at times like these that it’s worth revisiting the histories of the “can’t-miss kids” who have come before, but first, a note on the recent 20-year-old PGA Tour winner.

Wolff won six times during the past college season as a sophomore at Oklahoma State and set a program record for single-season scoring average (68.7). You could argue that he is unlike anyone college golf has seen before, but you can’t forget that the climate is different, too.

Nobody can fake his way through a PGA Tour victory, but neither can he win as a 20-year-old if he’s not getting starts as a 20-year-old.

Attribute some of Wolff’s exposure to his quirky swing and how well that plays on social media. Wolff holed a national championship-winning putt for Oklahoma State in May 2018 on national TV. That’s a relatively new opportunity, because the NCAA finals have been televised by Golf Channel only since 2014. Eight months later, Wolff was in the field at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a tournament that rarely uses sponsor exemptions on amateurs.

Chance Cozby, tournament director of the 2019 WMPO, liked what Wolff potentially could bring. Even though Wolff finished an eventual T-50 in his Tour debut, Cozby had a prescient thought: “Truth be told, I thought he could win the event. I don’t think that was out of question.”

For Wolff, winning the 3M Open was validation that he had made the right decision to leave Oklahoma State early. CBS stuck a microphone in his face on the 18th green, and he said as much.

“I just proved to myself that I can be out here,” he said.

It probably was the right decision for Wolff. Then again, it may be too early to tell, which is what makes the leap to professional golf so scary.

There are many players who have banked on continuing success, and for comparison’s sake, Pablo Martin is a good place to start. The former Oklahoma State player topped the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings at the end of the 2005-06 season. He won on the European Tour as an amateur in the spring of 2007, forwent his final season as a Cowboy and turned professional later that summer. He had no other top-10 finish over the next two years on the European Tour. Martin won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in 2009 and ’10, but he hasn’t won since.

Look at it through the lens of past NCAA champions, which is another category that Wolff fits into. Matt Hill swept the postseason in winning the 2009 national title as a sophomore at North Carolina State. Hill turned professional before his senior season and has played largely on the developmental tours since.

Jamie Lovemark, who won the NCAA title in 2007 while at Southern California, has bounced between the PGA and Korn Ferry tours ever since. The former top-ranked collegian remains winless on the PGA Tour.

Wolff, like Martin, Lovemark and Hill, also won the Haskins Award, an accolade bestowed upon the nation’s top collegian each spring. Stanford players Maverick McNealy (2015) and Patrick Rodgers (2014), Cal’s Michael Kim (2013) and UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay (2011) also won that award. Kim’s only victory came at the 2018 John Deere Classic. Cantlay turned pro in 2012, but his drought lasted until 2017, when he won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He followed with the 2019 Memorial title.

At the end of each college season, there are always a handful of players weighing their options when it comes to returning to school or turning professional. Wolff is a player for many of them to admire but for few of them to follow.

Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules