Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa are the PGA Tour’s exciting next generation. Evin Priest chatted to the youngsters to find out what makes this trio so special
New Power Generation – Hovland, Wolff, Morikawa
They were rolled out as the next generation of PGA Tour stars in a press conference beamed to the golf world. In the interview room on Wednesday at the Travelers Championship in June, hyped rookie professionals Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Justin Suh awaited questions from the media.
Interest in the first three was intense.
Hovland was then the reigning US Amateur champion, and Wolff the NCAA individual winner. Both were making their pro debuts – Morikawa had turned pro earlier that month.
Questions focused on their rivalry and many were trying to predict who was going to reach success quicker. Comparisons were also made to the ‘class of 2011’ – the talented crop including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele.
But who are these kids? What are they like? How far can they push the limits? Golf Monthly spent several weeks on the PGA Tour talking to Wolff, Morikawa and Hovland, as well as their coaches and caddies…
It’s not often a rookie with a handful of PGA Tour starts has such a unique and powerful swing that tributes to it go viral on social media.
But Wolff has taken the golf world by storm and fans eagerly uploaded videos of their impersonation: the kick of the left leg as a swing trigger and the outside takeaway and across-the-line position at the top, as well as the dramatic shallowing out of the club in transition.
Wolff was unheralded until he made a clutch putt to win the NCAA Championship title for Oklahoma State in 2018, then won the NCAA individual title a year later. But his instructor, George Gankas, always knew of Wolff’s potential.
Gankas is the unconventional, but popular, southern California teacher known for wearing flat-brim hats and untucked shirts. He is a fascinating coach renowned for boosting his students’ swing speeds to compete in the modern game.
Wolff, New Zealand’s Danny Lee and Padraig Harrington are among his disciples.
Gankas recalls the first time he met a teenage Wolff in Los Angeles. He knew the kid had X-factor. “The first time I met Matt, he was on the driving range and he had that leg trigger and a lot of swagger,” Gankas recalls.
“He was sitting on a bench and I was teaching and he said, ‘Hey’. I turned around and it was this little kid. He asked me, ‘Are you George Gankas?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Oh my god!’ But I knew this kid was messing with me! It was the first time I had ever met him and it was funny that he was already clowning with me.
“Then I saw his swing and I thought it was really cool. He was hitting a 20-yard draw. Within a month, his dad showed up and looked super-nervous about asking me to work with his son, because of how Matt’s swing looked. But I said, ‘Don’t worry; it is one of my favourite swings I’ve ever seen’.”
Wolff averages a devastating 309.1 yards with the driver, which only nine PGA Tour bombers bettered in the 2019 season. “The thing I teach all my students is to learn speed first, then you learn how to control it,” Gankas says.
“If you can swing it 130mph on the range in practice swings, you’ll feel you can control it at 120 when you’re on the course. It’s how the modern game is played. We’re not putting Matt in positions and trying to make it perfect. He’s not a machine. He’s an athlete.”
In just his third start as a pro, Wolff drained a long eagle putt from off the green on the 72nd hole at the 3M Open in Minnesota to beat Morikawa by one stroke. Few predicted just how quickly Wolff would win on the PGA Tour – not even himself.
“I would say I was a little surprised to win that early but I feel like I was ready,” Wolff explains. “I’m not sure if I was surprised, because I didn’t come out here expecting top tens all the time. I came out here because I knew I had the ability and the game to win.”
“I came out here because I knew I had the ability and the game to win”
As Los Angeles native Morikawa sat there during that media conference at the Travelers, he appeared more poised than the others. It was like watching a young Adam Scott – his answers thoughtful and calculated. There was a clear inner confidence.
Part of his serenity would have come from the fact he’d already turned pro and debuted at the Canadian Open, where he finished 14th. The following week, he made his Major debut at the US Open and finished a very respectable 35th.
It took only six pro starts for the 22-year-old to clinch his first PGA Tour victory. At the Barracuda Championship, in Reno, Nevada, Morikawa birdied four of his last five holes to steal a win at the modified Stableford event.
Golf Monthly caught up with Morikawa at the Northern Trust event, which kicked off the FedExCup Playoffs in August.
The southern Californian leant casually against the fence outside the media centre and answered questions like a seasoned pro. With the Statue of Liberty in the background, there was certainly a freedom about Morikawa.
Winning had lifted the monkey off his back, and he was ready to take the bull by the horns. “I didn’t put expectations on myself,” says Morikawa. “But winning so early, it opens a lot of doors for me and gives me more opportunities to play well, especially next year.”
Morikawa’s iron play is so accurate he often has veteran PGA Tour stars walk up behind him on the range to simply watch in awe.
Morikawa is so deadly from the fairway that, if he had enough rounds to be counted among the PGA Tour’s statistics, he would rank second on tour for scoring average (69.045), birdie average (4.46) and proximity to the hole (33’ 0”).
On paper, he is built for Majors. And one can’t help but think how well he could do at Augusta – golf’s greatest second-shot course.
“The next step for me in my career is to perform at the Majors,” Morikawa says. “But I’m certainly not going to stop there, or be satisfied with that.
I want to contend every week. Every Major. No matter where it is. Next year is going to be so much fun as I won’t know many of the courses, but I’ll have that confidence from winning already and I’ll be trying to contend and win.”
Hovland is the joker of the three; he has a goofy smile and truckloads of charisma. He also had one of the best lines of 2019, at the John Deere Classic. A joke had begun to circulate on social media that Hovland looked like a “stoned Rory”.
It was obviously on Hovland’s mind, so he brought it up, unprompted, to the media.
Reporter: You, Wolff and Morikawa are odds-on favourites to win the John Deere Classic. What are your thoughts on that?
Hovland: “I don’t know what my thoughts on that are… lay off the weed!” as the room, and Hovland, erupted with laughter.
But there is a very serious side to Hovland. For proof, one only needs to look at his amateur career. Hovland won the 2018 US Amateur at Pebble Beach, becoming the first Norwegian to do so in the event’s history.
He returned to the iconic California course a year later and finished low amateur at the US Open – beating Jack Nicklaus’ record for the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur. Hovland was also low amateur at The Masters courtesy of a tie for 32nd.
He signed off on his glittering amateur career by ascending to World No.1.
Hovland attributes his rapid rise through the amateur ranks to a shock he experienced when he arrived at Oklahoma State University. “Growing up in Oslo, we had a national junior league but only a handful of players were pretty decent,” says Hovland.
“If you do well, you think you’re big-time because everyone is talking about you. Then, you play in Europe and if you do well, again, you think you’re really good. Then you come to college and you realise, wow, there is a bunch of good guys out here. I figured out very quickly I had to play really well just to make the team.”
Simply because he had not jumped out of the gates as quickly as Wolff and Morikawa in the pro ranks, Hovland was considered the slower starter because he hadn’t won yet. He put those comments to bed with victory at the 2020 Puerto Rico Open after securing his PGA Tour card ad the Korn Ferry Tour finals.
Hovland made the astute move of employing veteran Australian caddie Shay Knight. Knight previously looped for Matt Jones, as well as Chez Reavie, Jerry Kelly and Sean O’Hair. Knight believes Hovland’s unflappable nature is going to hold him in good stead.
“I’m really excited to work with Viktor. He has a confident swagger, but he’s not cocky. Just a lot of self-belief. It’s really easy to get along with him,” Knight says. “He’s a very talented kid and it’s exciting to be a part of something that a lot of us think is going to be great for golf over the coming decades.”
Although Hovland is only 178cm tall, he boasts prodigious length and combines it with accuracy. He averages 301.4 yards from the tee and finds a whopping 75.5 per cent of fairways. Only two players on tour have a higher percentage.
“There aren’t any real weaknesses in Viktor’s game. His driving is a huge strength. He hits the ball so long and with very little curvature so the ball flight is more predictable and it’s easier to hit fairways.”
Hovland also employs a funky practice drill in competition that Knight says gives him a 20-yard boost with the driver. He stops the backswing at about three quarters to the top, does a double-pump, then rips it.
“It is actually designed to get him feeling and hitting a draw, but it has the bonus of a big distance boost,” says Knight.
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