Matthew Wolff, Peter Uihlein and Talor Gooch. LIV Golf
Peter Uihlein was on the practice green at LIV Golf Bangkok last October, hoping to get a feel for the greens at Stonehill, a brand-new course unfamiliar to nearly every golfer in the field that week. Suddenly, he was approached by Dustin Johnson. This was no friendly chit-chat. Consider it a business meeting.
“Hey,” DJ said, “don’t sign anything. We may have a spot for you next year.”
By then, Uihlein was well aware of the rumors circulating among the players, that Talor Gooch might leave Johnson’s wildly successful 4 Aces and transfer to Bubba Watson’s team. Uihlein, then a member of Smash, had decided to wait until after the season before committing to a team for the 2023 LIV Golf League.
Uihlein certainly enjoyed playing for Smash, captained by his friend and former roommate Brooks Koepka. He was grateful to have found a home after bouncing around a few teams early in the season. His game, in fact, had never been better. And although he didn’t know it at the time, Uihlein would find himself battling Koepka in a playoff the following week for the individual title at LIV Golf Jeddah, with Smash winning the team title. The two would finish the week at Jeddah on the podium at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.
But Uihlein also knew that Koepka wanted to add Matthew Wolff to the Smash roster in 2023. Meanwhile, Uihlein was undeniably intrigued by the potential of joining the 4 Aces, who had entered Bangkok with four consecutive team wins. With DJ and Patrick Reed leading the way, they appeared unbeatable, LIV Golf’s first budding dynasty. They would eventually end the season winning the Miami Team Championship and its $16 million first prize.
Who wouldn’t want to at least explore the opportunity?
“Brooks’ team obviously was very successful. We had a win and a good Miami week,” Uihlein explained in a recent interview. “But the 4 Aces are the 4 Aces.”
Uihlein, who grew up in New England, then offered up this analogy to describe the allure of playing for the 4 Aces.
“It pains me to say this, being a Red Sox fan, but the [4 Aces] are like the Yankees, right? And when the Yankees call, you answer,” he said.
And so the 2023 season begins this week at LIV Golf Mayakoba with Uihlein playing for 4 Aces, Gooch on Watson’s rebranded RangeGoats and Wolff jumping to Smash. That’s three of LIV Golf’s most intriguing talents — all former Oklahoma State golfers — each taking full advantage of LIV’s unique transfer opportunity that reflects the player movement found in other team sports.
It also could have a significant impact on how the team competition will shake out this season with the full 14-tournament schedule in place and rosters stabilised throughout the season. Consider this: All three players finished last year ranked inside the top 11 in individual points — Uihlein third (and winner of the $4 million bonus), Wolff sixth and Gooch 11th. Now they’re on different teams, creating different dynamics within their respective rosters.
The same goes for all the teams with fresh line-ups. Just three rosters from last season’s Miami Team Championship are being carried over to Mayakoba — Majesticks, Fireballs and Crushers. The other nine have made at least one change. But it’s the Uihlein-Gooch-Wolff transfers that are making the most noise.
FROM ACE TO RANGEGOAT
Perhaps you don’t remember: Talor Gooch wasn’t an original member of the 4Aces. In fact, he was the captain of Torque at the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational event in London last June.
But when Johnson’s team finished fifth at Centurion Club, 18 strokes behind the winning Stinger side, DJ went for a complete roster overhaul. That meant bringing in Gooch to add to new LIV Golf signees Patrick Reed and Pat Perez.
The result was immediate — four consecutive wins starting in Portland.
For Gooch, the move not only meant trophy celebrations but a significant bump in prize earnings. Of his $10,374,500 in winnings last year, 68 per cent of it came from his share of the team bonuses won by the 4Aces. It was well-earned, as Gooch supplied several timely low rounds, including a second-round 64 in Bedminster, and a 63-65 start the next week in Boston. He and Perez also paired to win their foursomes match in the semi-finals in Miami.
But as financially fruitful as it was to be an Ace, Gooch has a close friend on another team — Harold Varner III. They first met as college rivals, and immediately hit it off. Gooch has since leaned on Varner’s advice to help guide him on some professional decisions. And they use the same agent.
The chance to share the LIV Golf team experience with his good buddy was a huge factor as Gooch weighed his next steps.
“Obviously, we [4 Aces] had a great year and had a bunch of success and I was happy with how things were going,” Gooch said. “It wasn’t an easy decision that was made overnight. But for me, it was a cool and unique opportunity to team up with one of your good buddies and play team golf together.”
Varner was the key member of Watson’s team last year. But as captain, Watson has the final say on personnel moves. Given Gooch’s credentials, and the fact that his team finished last in regular-season points in 2022, the chance to upgrade the roster seemed like an easy call on paper.
But Watson didn’t know Gooch all that well, and wanted to make sure the fit would be good, chemistry-wise. The same from Gooch’s perspective.
“I sat down with Talor and he asked me what I was about, what I wanted to do, where I see this going and why did I want to be a part of LIV,” recalled Watson, who is back to active duty after missing last season following knee surgery. “He asked great questions and I answered them to the best of my ability.
“One of the things that I did say to him is: ‘Man, I just want you to be happy. I don’t care whose team you’re on.’ Talor Gooch is better for the league on anybody’s team rather than not having Talor in the league at all, if that makes sense.”
Watson asked about Gooch’s charity initiatives in his native Oklahoma. Watson then spoke about his own charities, and how working together in a team environment could help raise awareness for all their off-course efforts.
“Our ideas lined up,” Watson said. “Who he wants to be, who I want to be. We just kind of connected on that level. It wasn’t anything about: ‘Our team’s gonna win championships.’ We were talking the other stuff, that stuff that comes with being a professional golfer or part of a team. And that’s really what gave him the idea to come to us.”
Well, that, and one other factor.
“Who doesn’t want to play with Harold Varner?” Watson laughed. “As soon as you say Harold’s on the team, everybody’s like, hold on for a second, I want to be on that team because Harold is so fun and loving and caring. Obviously, Talor was drawn to that as well.”
With the decision made, Gooch had one other thing to do. Tell DJ.
“It’s almost like telling your girlfriend: ‘Hey, I think we’re going to have to part ways,’” Gooch said with a laugh. “But at the end of the day, he understood. It was not a fun conversation but it went smooth, and DJ took it well.”
THE AUDITION WENT WELL
Like Gooch, Uihlein was a team captain in London — and a successful one. He led the Crushers to a second-place finish, albeit 14 strokes behind the winning Stingers. Meanwhile, Uihlein finished tied for third on the individual leaderboard.
When Bryson DeChambeau joined LIV Golf and became the Crushers captain starting in Portland, Uihlein stayed on the roster. But as DeChambeau began to fine-tune his line-up, Uihlein moved to the pre-Bubba Niblicks team. During the off-week prior to Boston, Uihlein and Koepka were at the northern end of Medalist Golf Club in South Florida. Koepka asked him about his plans. Uihlein was honest.
“I didn’t have any,” he recalled. “I just didn’t want to keep bouncing around. I wanted to do something, be a part of something for the rest of the year.”
Koepka was also honest. He said that Wolff -— who had become the most productive player for Mickelson’s HyFlyers — remained on his radar as a potential Smash player for 2023. Uihlein was fine with that. He jumped to Smash for the rest of the season.
“In my opinion, it was a win-win,” Uihlein said. “If we played well as a team, that’s great. You play well, you make more. Then if I played well, I was on the radar for other teams.”
He indeed played well. At Chicago, he tied for second with Johnson, three strokes behind Cameron Smith. Just as important, he played in the final group with those two major winners and held his own; at one point, he was within a shot of Smith. “That was big for me. Huge,” Uihlein said.
Johnson’s radar was now pinging.
The next event was LIV Golf Bangkok. After Johnson made his interest known on the putting green, Uihlein was flattered but now felt the pressure to perform. At Bangkok, he tied for 20th at 8-under, same as Gooch. Good, but not eye-popping.
Then at Jeddah in the regular-season finale, Uihlein opened with a 5-under 65. So did 4 Aces star Reed. That meant they were paired for the second round.
Uihlein and Reed have competed against each other for many years, going back to their college days. “He smoked me twice at nationals in back-to-back years,” Uihlein remembered. He wanted to make a better impression in Jeddah.
They started on the second hole. Uihlein opened with four consecutive birdies en route to a 7-under 63 that moved him atop the leaderboard. Reed shot a 69.
“In my mind, that was an audition,” Uihlein said. “I wanted to play well in front of him … That’s how I approached that day, and it obviously worked out well.”
The decision was made: Uihlein would join the 4 Aces for 2023. Considering Koepka had been transparent about wanting Wolff, it was an easy conversation for Uihlein to explain his move. “No animosity, no tension, nothing,” Uihlein said. “It’s just business is business.”
Uihlein and Wolff are tight. They’ve shared many practice rounds at their home bases in South Florida. They’ve often talked about being teammates on LIV Golf, especially since their careers did not cross at Oklahoma State.
“We wanted to try to play together, but there were no spots,” Uihlein said. “I think ultimately we both ended up in the right spots for us.”
As for joining the 4 Aces?
“I’m joining a team that arguably has one of the top three players in my generation of all time. And then an unbelievable Ryder Cup player, major winner in Patrick Reed. And then a 20-year veteran in Pat Perez,” Uihlein said. “In my mind, I’m going to a situation where I know they’re going to help me get better. And whatever I can do to help them and help the 4Aces win, that’s great.
“The reality is, it all starts with DJ and Patrick Reed.”
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
Matthew Wolff became engaged in the off-season. He popped the question to his girlfriend Kim Lloyd at a hotel in her family’s hometown of Philadelphia. They were standing outside on a balcony on one of the high floors when he knelt down and proposed.
It was approximately 6 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Absolutely freezing,” Wolff said. “Luckily the wind wasn’t gusting up there or it probably would’ve been unbearable.”
Wolff looks forward to being married, to start the next chapter of his life. But he’s still just 23 years old. Kids may be in the future, but not now.
Now compare that to his former HyFlyers captain. Phil Mickelson is 52, has three grown kids and has been married to wife Amy since 1996. The other former HyFlyers teammates were also well into their 30s, with much more life experience than Wolff.
So when the opportunity to join a Smash team led by the 32-year-old Koepka, along with younger brother Chase (age 29) and veteran Jason Kokrak (37), it just seemed a better fit to Wolff.
“One of the biggest reasons I went over to LIV in the first place was that you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your team, talk to them, get close with them,” Wolff explained. “I think it’s hard for me, because of my age, to relate to someone because they might be a little older or at a different stage in life.”
There’s something to be said about getting close with the players on your team.
In essence, he just wanted to have more in common with his teammates. Nothing wrong with that, and no knock against the HyFlyers, the only team with a World Golf Hall of Famer on its roster. When Mickelson first approached Wolff about joining LIV Golf last year, the young star couldn’t resist.
“It’s Phil, right?” Wolff said. “Obviously I respect his game and the player he is and what he’s done. And he taught me a lot. Great guy. He really cared about us, wanted us to win.”
But with Wolff and the Koepka brothers all living in close proximity to each other in Florida, the team camaraderie could be a year-round thing.
“We’ve been playing a lot, practising, kind of spending time together,” Wolff said. “I think there’s something to be said about getting close with the players on your team. Obviously, you want to win as a team, but it gives you a little extra when you know them a little bit more personally.”
The team environment is especially important for Wolff, who didn’t really enjoy the, ahem, lone wolf lifestyle so prevalent on most professional tours. He loves hanging out and competing with his buddies, knowing others on the course have his back.
“We talked about it being the most fun he’s ever had playing golf,” said Uihlein. “And this is coming from a kid who finished second in the US Open (in 2020). You’d think that would be a good time. But golf can be very lonely. It can be very difficult. We just have more fun playing now.”
Uihlein also believes that Smash is the perfect landing spot for Wolff. “I know Brooks will look after him, which is good,” Uihlein said. “I think that’s what Wolffie needs.”
It was less than four years ago that the big-hitting Wolff won the 2019 NCAA Division I championship as a sophomore at Oklahoma State. He then turned pro, and in his third start captured his first pro win. A year later, he tied for fourth at the PGA Championship before that runner-up finish to Bryson DeChambeau at the 2020 US Open, which Wolff led after 54 holes. Stardom was just around the corner.
But 2021 turned into a lost season, and Wolff was left searching for a spark. He found it after joining LIV Golf. A tie for eighth in his first start in Portland. A tie for second at Bedminster. Then he recorded LIV’s first (and still only) ace in Boston. He ended the regular season tied for fifth in Jeddah.
He had found a home. The team concept works for him.
“In the past, it was a grind,” Wolff said. “I didn’t really have anyone. I was hotel room to hotel room. I just got lonely out there. But now I’m enjoying it again. I’m just having fun.”
Perhaps the only part that wasn’t fun was telling Mickelson that he was leaving the HyFlyers to play for a new team.
“He took it fine,” Wolff said. “At the end of the day, once you get into this team stuff, you start realising how much more it means, and the emotion that goes along with playing for more than just yourself. I just thought I had to do what is best for me, and he understood that.
“Phil’s a good guy. He definitely wants me to continue to play well and continue to be good. He thinks I’m a young guy with a big future in golf. So kudos to him to make sure that my future is in good hands.”
MODEL OF THE FUTURE
So who’s the real winner in this three-player transfer?
Is it the 4 Aces, who lost a terrific contributor but added the third-best player from the 2022 season?
Is it the RangeGoats, who have significantly upgraded their roster with a key component from last year’s top team?
Is it Smash, who brings in a young talent loaded with potential greatness, a player who can overpower any course when he’s on his game?
From the perspective of the players making the moves, all three consider the changes as ultra-positive ones. From each team’s perspective, the additions are vital since three scores will be counted in each round. From a fan perspective, it just adds a layer of intrigue that previously had not existed in golf, but that has certainly been prevalent in team sports.
“This is what’s going to happen now,” said Crushers captain DeChambeau, an interested observer whose roster remained the same in the off-season. “You’re going to have trades happen every single year. It’s going to be unique and different. We’re going to flip-flop.
“I can’t wait to see what’s going to come from this model. You’re going to have the individual medal play for the title, but then you’ve got the added team component. How can that not be good? You look at the counting scores and no matter if you’re in dead last, you’re still fighting for your team. Can you give me one reason what that isn’t good for the sport?
“That’s the frustrating part, some people looking at it and going, is this really a better entertainment product? Well, yeah, it is.”