Peter Uihlein has an appropriate catchphrase for his close friend and now teammate Matthew Wolff on the revamped RangeGoats GC lineup. Whenever the conversation drifts to the 2023 LIV Golf season, particularly the difficult stretch that Wolff endured with his former Smash GC team, just consider these four words.
We’re on to Cincinnati.
For NFL fans – especially a New England Patriot supporter like Uihlein, born and raised in Massachusetts – it’s the memorable line uttered repeatedly by the team’s legendary (and now former) coach Bill Belichick during a 2014 press conference following a blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth week of the season.
Instead of dwelling on his team’s poor performance, Belichick made it known he was simply looking to the future, specifically the Patriots’ next game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Questions about the Chiefs’ loss received the same reply. We’re on to Cincinnati.
In other words, the only thing that matters is what’s ahead.
For Wolff, the ultra-talented and mercurial 24-year-old, getting a fresh start in his third season as a LIV golfer is reason enough to enter the 2024 campaign in a good mood. But the change in scenery is just the tip of the story.
Wolff will be surrounded by teammates who plan to offer him the support needed to create the kind of positive environment that will maximize his potential. In Uihlein, he has a fellow Oklahoma State alum and older brother type. And in RangeGoats captain Bubba Watson, he has a person who has dealt with his own mental challenges, understands the issues and can sympathize when the darker moments arrive.
“I know I've got a lot of skill and a lot of talent,” Wolff said. “For me, the main thing is just mentally making sure that I'm in a good spot, I'm enjoying where I'm at and I want to be out there.
“Being on a team with Bubba, I think he'll definitely be able to help me out with that aspect. But more than anything, just kind of getting me in a position where I feel like I can thrive and be myself. I really feel like it's a good fit here.”
Both Wolff and his former captain Brooks Koepka acknowledge that it wasn’t a good fit with Smash, the team Wolff joined for 2023 after playing the inaugural season with HyFlyers GC and captain Phil Mickelson.
The low mark came at LIV Golf DC, the first tournament after Koepka won the PGA Championship. A poor opening round for the team, an early mandatory workout the next day, strained muscles and frayed tensions – it was not a good weekend. Each of the 11 other teams finished with a cumulative counting score of 7 under or better; Smash finished last at 2 over. If you want the fallout, just revisit some of the social posts and interviews during the ensuing weeks.
Following Wolff’s WD in DC, he finished near the bottom in the next two starts but showed signs of life with a top-5 finish in Greenbrier. Then it was back near the bottom for the final three regular-season events, and Smash ended the season meekly at the Team Championship.
A split seemed inevitable between Smash and Wolff, but finding the right trade partner wasn’t easy. Smash wanted a top player in return, while Wolff was hoping for a good fit.
Meanwhile, Watson had the biggest jewel on the market – Individual Champion Talor Gooch, winner of three events in 2023. Several teams inquired about Gooch’s availability, including Smash. Gooch was happy with the RangeGoats, especially playing alongside his friend Harold Varner III. But when Watson said Smash was interested, Gooch was intrigued.
“I said, if you’re interested in any of these teams, just let me know and I’ll try to help you out if you don’t want to be with us,” Watson recalled. “And he said, business-wise, he thought Smash would be a good fit for him.”
From Gooch’s standpoint, joining Smash wasn’t a new idea. He had been paired with Koepka in the final round at LIV Golf Andalucía – the next event after DC. Like everybody else, he was aware of the issues Smash had experienced there. Brooks was asked what he planned to do. The Smash captain looked at Gooch and said, “I want to get you.” Gooch was flattered – but thought Koepka was joking.
After the end of the season, it was no joke.
Watson initially told Gooch that he wasn’t going to make the trade straight up for Wolff. But after mulling over the deal for a couple of days, Watson had an idea. He knew that Wolff and Uihlein were tight and having seen firsthand the value of a close friendship – after all, Gooch and Varner combined to win nearly 33% of LIV Golf’s individual trophies in 2023, with Varner winning DC and finishing top 10 in points – Watson began pulling the strings.
With Uihlein then on the 4Aces and Varner a big fan of Captain Dustin Johnson, Watson suggested a one-for-one deal to his RangeGoats staff. Uihlein has been one of LIV’s most consistent performers, so it seemed like a fair trade for both parties. After the 4Aces agreed to the trade, Watson felt more comfortable making the Wolff-for-Gooch trade.
“I’ve always wanted Wolff. I think Wolff is such a great talent and a great kid,” Watson said. “Once I made the deal with the Aces for Peter, it was easy to make the deal with Smash because now I’ve got the pieces that I wanted to make this all work.”
Even so, Watson knew that public perception would be negative on his side. Trading the No. 1 player for the No. 27 player doesn’t exactly jibe from an analytical standpoint. There were other considerations involved on the back end to help equalize the deal, but the bottom line is that Smash received a player at the top of his game while the RangeGoats took on a player with question marks.
“I knew the world would see this as dumb,” Watson said. “But at the same time, if I’m taking a chance to come to LIV, people may have seen that as dumb at the time. And now people see it differently, right? Two years later, they’re like, ‘Hey, LIV’s not that bad.’
“So, when you talk to me in two years, well, it’s like any sports team when you make a trade. Look at Aaron Rodgers this year. Four plays in, he got hurt. And so the Jets blew it, right? I don’t know the future, but I can try to guess. And that’s what we tried to do, make our most educated guess.”
Here’s what Watson sees.
Long-range potential. Wolff is eight years younger than Gooch. If the RangeGoats can maximize Wolff’s potential, that’s a much bigger contribution window.
Room for growth. Wolff, theoretically, should get better; after all, he has 26 spots he can move up in the standings. Gooch is No. 1 now; it’s either maintain or drop. Even Gooch sees this logic. “A year from now, if Wolfie goes and wins the whole league, which he can, all of a sudden people are going to think Bubba was the brilliant one,” Gooch said. “Hopefully he doesn't. Hopefully I go win it again.”
Positive message. Watson wants his fellow golfers to be happy, no matter if they are teammates or competitors. By trading the League’s top player to the team he desires, Watson thinks the good will and karma will be beneficial in the long run. “It shows the rest of the golfing world that I will help you out,” he said.
Right thing to do. Be skeptical if you want, but Watson has altruistic principals. He’s concerned for the happiness and well-being of others – especially ones that he can sympathize with, understand their problems. Yes, if he can get the most out of Wolff, it will benefit the RangeGoats. But it will also benefit Wolff.
Go back to the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The previous year, Wolff was the 54-hole leader at Winged Foot, eventually finishing runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau. He was 20 years old at the time with unlimited potential. But at Torrey Pines, Watson heard Wolff discussing his mental health, and that resonated with him. Just as he had done with LPGA star Nelly Korda upon hearing of her challenges, Watson reached out to Wolff.
“I’ve always wanted to be on Matt’s side,” Watson said. “Always wanted to be in his camp because he’s young, right? I didn’t tell the world I had mental problems when I was in my early 20s, mid-20s. I wish I had somebody to talk with back then.
“It’s no good for Bubba Watson to play golf or to be part of this world if I’m not going to help people. And so with Matthew, when I sat back and before I made the trade, the light bulb went off. This is my chance to help Matthew.”
Thanks to the trade for Uihlein, Watson is not carrying the responsibility alone. Ten years older than Wolff, Uihlein has seen the world, lived through the highs and lows of golf. He won the U.S. Amateur in 2010, was ranked as the world’s top amateur golfer, spotlighted as one of sport’s top young players. But after playing mostly a variety of developmental tours, he’s finally found his game on LIV Golf, embracing the league’s team aspect as a key element of his improvement.
Like Watson, he wants the best for his close friend Wolff. As the calmest guy in the room, Uihlein can see through the fears and insecurities to provide a proper, positive and well-intentioned perspective.
“Funny enough, the other day I told Matt, ‘You finished second in the U.S. Open. You won on Tour. You were top 12 in the world at one point. You don’t forget how to play golf,’” Uihlein said. “He might’ve just kind of lost his way a little bit, but it’s not like he doesn’t know how to get that back.
“He just needs to go out there, be himself again, play golf, have fun doing it. It’s ridiculous to watch him. He’s the most talented player I think I’ve ever played with. No doubt he’ll be just fine.”
Wolff realizes being traded for LIV Golf’s No. 1 player puts pressure on him to perform. But having landed in the RangeGoats’ comfortable, warm and embracing environment that seems perfectly suited to maximize his potential, Wolff is feeling confident about 2024. “Regardless of results and stuff like that, it’s going to be a great year with a great group of people,” he said. “I’m really, really excited. We can make a lot of people happy, or we can prove a lot of people wrong.”
It’s evident that Wolff is pumped. You can hear it in his voice. Energetic. Excited. Happy.
“You’re telling me I didn’t sound like this last year?” he asked at one point.
No, Matt, you didn’t. But that was last year. No need to dwell on it now.
“We’re on to Cincinnati,” he said one last time. “Absolutely.”