There is a default way to start an article like this when we want to frame up just how young x-person is when contrasted with their y-relative success. We can do that here. Matt Wolff is 20. He wasn’t around for Tiger Woods’ first major win, and was a newborn for his second. He wasn’t here to witness Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. He likely has no memory of Baz Luhrmann’s spoken word hit “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen” appearing on the back of Now! That’s What I Call Music 2.
He’s young. You’re probably old. And so it goes.
At 20 years old, Wolff won the 3M Open Sunday night — a real, actual full PGA Tour event — which is a thing 20 year olds are not supposed to do. They are not supposed to do it ever. They are certainly not supposed to do it a month removed from playing sophomore season college golf, just three starts into their pro career. They’re definitely not supposed to do it with some wonky-ass, homegrown swing molded and crafted by some counterculture golf coach.
Old Golf wouldn’t allow that player to exist, let alone march up to the 72nd green at TPC Twin Cities, stare down a top-10 player, and drop some magical putt that leaves you screaming in your living room on an otherwise regular July Sunday afternoon.
But that’s exactly what happened, because Old Golf is maybe dead. Welcome to the Wolff Era, and maybe what the future of golf looks like.
Yes, Wolff is this good. But his win maybe says more about where the game is headed.
There’s no question Wolff’s almost instant-win is extremely rare in the modern era of the sport. Over the last 80 years, only Jordan Spieth has won a PGA Tour event at a younger age, but Spieth’s win came several months into his first season on Tour. Wolff turned pro three weeks ago. He’s easy to root for, fun, insanely skilled, and far from a one-trick, weird-swinging pony. He’s a complete player with the pedigree to win multiple majors.
The California native and now former Oklahoma State star has aspirations that stretch beyond 3M Opens, and perhaps U.S. Opens. He and swing coach George Gankas want to brand themselves as ‘disruptors’ ushering in a new era of the sport. It’s a cringeworthy phrase generally reserved for your local techbro with an Uber, But For [X] idea. But there’s at least some level of truth to that here! Wolff is a generational talent, and Gankas’ position on how to get the most out of him by leaning into his unorthodox move will probably spark some merch and book sales. Again, both are likable. Good for them, that’s totally fine.
As much as Wolff seems like something new, something that the sport’s never seen before — he’s not really at all. Wolff is just what modern golf looks like now. Courses are longer, balls go farther, players are more athletic, coaching is better, philosophies more progressive, training more intense. It’s been 20 years in the making, starting with the trail paved by Woods, then to Rory McIlroy, to Dustin Johnson, to Brooks Koepka. Golf is a sport now in perhaps a way it wasn’t decades ago. That type of evolution produces something in the end that resembles Wolff — a ball-mashing, freakishly athletic creature that can pop out of college with a bizzaro swing and win instantly.
In every other sport, you could at least perceive that the evolution of the sport will prolong careers. Better training, better diet, better injury care, better technology. LeBron James is going to play basketball until he is approximately 47 years old at this rate. Adam Vinatieri will at some point rise from the grave to go 26 of 28 on field goals in the year 2096.
Drawing this broad extrapolation from one 20-year-old winning is partially reckless, but let’s throw it out there: we’re entering an era of golf when collegiate players are skilled and developed enough where it’s reasonable to expect instant success on the PGA Tour. Length, youth, and athleticism are valued in the sport more than ever before. Continue on our slow slog to 8,000-yard major championship golf courses, and it stands to reason that more long-hitting almost-teens will win more often. The counter? Golf primes will shrink. Maybe 25 is the new 30, 35 is the new 45, so on, so forth. If we’re talking in NBA terms, Zach Johnson’s about to be hit with the stretch provision.
This is where the natural turn to the traditional ROLL BACK THE BALL arguments might come in, but that assumes that younger, longer, more athletic players and shorter careers is in someway inherently bad. There’s certainly downside, but exposing younger, more athletic, more fun, often more interesting young stars to the top of the sport sooner is good. Not bad.
So, enjoy Wolff. Enjoy Gankas. Enjoy the weird swings, the Gankas “sickkk, bro” videos, and the 7-iron that can go 220+ when it chooses. It’s fun, and it made an otherwise sleepy, mailed-in-by-the-PGA Tour event worth watching.
Welcome to New Golf. Get used to it.