Hovland, Wolff, Bratton discuss NCAA Championship outlook

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Transcript of a Thursday Golf Channel teleconference with Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton and star players  Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland.

STEVE BURKOWSKI: Jeremy, appreciate it. Wow, what a start. The women have set the bar yet again extremely high. The drama throughout the week to get into match play, early in the morning and the drama we saw in the quarters and the semis and obviously with the championship match into the early evening yesterday, simply phenomenal to watch Duke and Wake Forest battle it out, extra holes, keep going and going. At one point you had the first four matches all tied playing 18. Can’t ask for much more than that.

We’re excited. Look to continue that trend this week with the men, with Oklahoma State, the defending national champions. Great to have head coach Alan Bratton alongside his all-Americans Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland, from the illustrious program that is Oklahoma State.

Matthew, I’m going to start with you. Because we were standing in the fairway watching that final match, what was your reaction to the show the women put on a day ago?

MATTHEW WOLFF: It was pretty incredible. We got there a little late, and we started watching as the head group came on to 14, but just, I mean, the quality of shots that those women hit coming down the stretch, and obviously me and Viktor and pretty much everyone here who’s experienced high-level college golf and amateur golf know how much pressure it is and know how hard it is to step up at that time. But they hit really good shots and handled the pressure and the stage with class, and that’s what we hope to do this week.

STEVE BURKOWSKI: You guys had the opportunity to have a practice round earlier today in Fayetteville, Arkansas. What are your impressions of the Blessings and how it might fit the Oklahoma State team?

VIKTOR HOVLAND: Yeah, it’s got some similarities to Karsten Creek, which I think is a good thing for us. It’s kind of very good for variety of narrow holes, but also some wider holes, but then you’ve got to really pay attention to where all the slopes are on the greens. I think it’s a course that you definitely learn a lot from, from playing multiple times, but I think we did a very good job of seeing the whole course today, and I think we’re ready to go for tomorrow and have a good week.

STEVE BURKOWSKI: Alan, a year ago we talked on the green there at Karsten Creek as you won the national championship. What have the last 12 months been like as you try to prepare to do it for a second straight year?

ALAN BRATTON: Well, any time you get to spend a lot of time with the group that we have, the five guys we’ve got here, it’s really special to have a group of talented kids like that, and we have tons of fun on the road. So it’s been great for me to watch them grow up as young men and develop as golfers, and just to see them mature.

Can’t wait to see what we can do this week. What a wonderful setting and a great preview yesterday. That’s the first time that we’ve gone out and watched the final, arrived on-site and gone and watched, and these guys got to see what they all want. You want the ball in your hand at the end of the game, and to see three matches go to a playoff like that was spectacular, and the quality of play, can’t help but inspire our guys for this week.

Q. Coach, you’ve got an interesting squad. These guys in particular, they have had a lot of different experiences this year in terms of playing a TOUR event, going to the Hogan Award dinner, black tie dinner. How do you kind of debrief them or make it a team experience or make sure that your team gets the most out of what these guys are doing?
ALAN BRATTON: Well, I mean, that’s the benefit of being on a really good team. You want guys to grow, to create those opportunities for themselves, and whether it’s your teammate or yourself that’s getting to do it, you can still learn from that. We’ve had three different guys on our team play PGA TOUR events this year, Austin Eckroat is going to get to experience U.S. Open here coming up, and these two guys have gotten to do a lot of special things, but they brought that back to their teammates. We try to preview or prepare them before they go, and then come back, and we want them to share what that experience was like, so everybody gets to benefit from that. Very much like you’re out of contention as an individual and your team has a chance to win, you get to benefit from what that’s like to be in contention coming down the stretch.

I think all eight of our guys have benefitted from all of those experiences, and we’ve got great leaders on our team that don’t just keep that to themselves, they share with the group so everyone feels a part of it. It’s not about one or two guys, it’s about the team and the program and it’s really special. That’s what makes college golf great is that it’s about more than just yourself.

Q. Obviously four of these guys were on the team last year. Your fifth, Hayden Wood, is a guy who’s been in the program for several years. How have you seen him integrating with these four guys this year and obviously had some success at the regionals helping you in a couple of days.
ALAN BRATTON: Well, Hayden has been a part of the program, this is his fifth year, and he was a big part of last year’s team, as well. When you go on the road, only five guys generally get to travel. This week it’s six. We have Aman Gupta here as a sub. But Hayden was a part of that. We had 11 guys on the team last year that were all a part of that success, and like I said, we share that across the board. So Hayden may not have had the clubs in his hand when we won the championship last year, but he was out there watching, and he was a big part of allowing us to get to that championship. He was in the lineup quite a bit of the year last year and has been in the lineup all year this year. So that’s one of the benefits of red shirting. He red shirted as a freshman, and now we’ve got a 23-year-old senior that’s ready to step up and be a big part this week as he ends his college career.

Q. Alan and Matt, Viktor, talk about the similarities of Karsten Creek to Blessings. Can you break down the similarities, maybe a few differences, as well?
ALAN BRATTON: I think the biggest similarity is in the fairways. I mean, we play zoysia at home. This is a different kind of zoysia. And obviously we’re in the same part of the country. So it’s a similar weather. It’s a similar feel. There’s some elevation change at Karsten Creek. There’s a few more visually wide-open holes here. There’s probably more contrast in the holes here than there is at Karsten Creek, but I think that’s familiarity. The greens are the same type of grass. These greens have got more — probably takes you a little bit longer to learn the greens here. There’s more undulation. But the greens are big. So it definitely feels familiar to Karsten Creek and should be comfortable for us. I think it’s mostly the type of grass and just the part of the country.

MATTHEW WOLFF: Yeah, I think the biggest difference is there’s a lot more fairway bunkers here, and like coach said, more wide-open shots. I mean, multiple holes (indiscernible) so where if you kind of pull up right and miss you’re going to be in a bunker or just rough, whereas Karsten there’s really no holes out there where if you blow it you’re going to find your ball. Even though there’s some holes like that here, but I think some similarities are we know the importance of keeping the ball under the hole. Especially at nationals last year and throughout the year at Karsten when the greens get really fast, we know we can’t be above that hole because you won’t be able to stop it. Missing on the right sides of the pins and not feel like there’s some false fronts and controlling your spin and stuff like that around the greens, that will benefit us, I guess, more than other teams, since we play it all year at Karsten. But it’s going to be a hard test, and we have to be on our game.

Q. Are there more red stakes out here than there were last year?
ALAN BRATTON: There are more hazards, and the ball is going to run away from the greens. The rough, if you miss big here you’re going to get in some spots. But at Karsten Creek we have — here the ball is going to run away from the greens if you miss. So the courses are similar but they’re different. I think we’ll be comfortable on it. It’s going to be a very good test of golf, and I’m excited to just learn the golf course as we go through the week, as our guys learn how best to play it. That’s difficult to do in one practice round. But our guys did a good job today, and I think that will be a goal for us for the week is to get to know the course better as we go.

Q. How does it feel team-wise to be entering this week, not as the hosts like you were last year, but like Coach was saying, coming in and seeing a course for the first time? What’s the big difference between last year and this year?
VIKTOR HOVLAND: I think it’s a lot of the same things. The goal is the same, to try to win the national championship. But obviously we’re not going to have the same visual support as we had last year. But there’s a lot of similarities, as well. We had a really good season leading up to the national championship, a lot of extra patience to do well at nationals, which we did, and I think that’s helped us for this year, kind of under similar circumstances, somewhat being the same.

But we’re just trying to do what we’ve done the last couple years, just prepare well and play our best and see what happens.

MATTHEW WOLFF: Yeah, kind of going off what Viktor said, obviously there will be a lot more people coming out, a lot more fans. I think there’s still going to be a pretty good support group for us coming out, and probably Arkansas not being here, there might not be as many people, but for the most part we’ve been the No. 1 team all year, really the No. 1 team all of last year, and then we won stroke play and ended up winning the national championship last year.

I think we’ve always had a target on our back, and we know that feeling and we’re comfortable with it, so I think that there’s nothing else that’s really changed or feels that much different. It’s more just going out there and doing what we do. Like we said, we’ve prepared well. We feel like we can get a better understanding of the golf course. And as Coach said, we’ve put in the work all year, now this is the reward. There’s not much to do to put in the work anymore, just go out there and do what you know how to do.

Q. Viktor and Matthew, kind of the reverse of what was asked of Coach earlier. What’s it like for you guys when you’re going out and playing an individual tournament, and you guys have played some big ones, and then coming back into the team setting, how does your mental approach change, if at all, when you’re coming back into a team setting?
VIKTOR HOVLAND: Well, you’re still kind of — you’re playing the same game, so your mindset doesn’t really change I would say. The way to help the team is that you’ve got to do what’s best for you when you’re out on the course because you’re the one that’s playing, and if you’re playing well, you’re helping the team out. So I don’t really feel like it’s a big change in that way, but obviously if you happen to play bad and your team plays good, you’re happy about it because the team — if the team is doing well, it’s a better team spirit, so you’re not alone in that way. But how in terms of the way we play, I don’t think it really changes, to be honest with you.

MATTHEW WOLFF: Yeah, kind of what Viktor said. Kind of the same thing, just if you’re playing well, you’re going to stick to your game plan. Just because you’re on a team, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything differently. I think pretty much the only difference between playing on a team event and an individual is I guess if you’re 1-down as a team and the last hole is a par-5 and you need to carry some water, you might not take that risk if you’re playing as an individual. But if you’re playing the other team, you might do that. So there might be some shots coming down the stretch that you might risk it. But for the most part, I think it’s just sticking to your game plan. There’s not really much of a difference between an individual tournament and a team tournament because at the end of the day, you are still playing as an individual. It’s just if you play well, your team does well, which is a double reward.

Q. I want to ask all three of you guys to talk about this topic, but I guess the first part of the question is what was your reaction when you first heard about Donnie’s cancer? And secondly, how has his battle inspired and given you guys new perspective this spring? And I guess if there’s a third part, talk about having him back the last couple events.
ALAN BRATTON: Yeah, it’s been fantastic to have him back. He’s been around town quite a bit this semester. He was gone for six weeks, but his family has obviously had to deal with a lot beyond his battle, as well. He lost his mother-in-law. She found out she had brain cancer last summer and passed. The first reaction is just caring for my good friend and worried about him, but he’s been, like always, just a model of toughness. I tried to get him to take a cart last week at the regionals, and he wouldn’t do it.

So he’s been quite the inspiration, at least to me. And he really hasn’t changed. He’s gone about his business. He’s gotten a great report since his surgery, so I think he’s cancer free now. Now he has to go through chemo in the summer. But certainly been an inspiration to me, I think to these guys, and it’s been great having him back this week, and hopefully that’s a little extra kick for us. He led us to a victory last week at the regionals, so I think these guys will keep that (indiscernible).

VIKTOR HOVLAND: Going off what Coach said, he’s a pretty tough guy, so when I first heard about it, obviously it was kind of shocking because you don’t really think anything can really faze him. So it was sad to hear about it, but it seems that he’s come back almost even stronger and definitely motivates us even more.

MATTHEW WOLFF: Yeah, I’m not going to say anything about that because you’re never going to be happy when someone gets cancer. But the two things that stuck with me the most is, one, he always had a good attitude no matter what. When he first told me about it, he wasn’t sad, he wasn’t down on himself, he wasn’t scared. The only thing that was going to do was just make it worse, so he always had a great attitude. You know, looking forward to it, and just said pretty much that I’m just going to be as tough as I can, which he’s always said to us the last two years, just how important it is to be tough off the golf course and on the golf course.

And then the second thing is it just puts everything in perspective, how blessed we are to be out here. I had a tendency to kind of whine and moan last year and we’ve gotten a lot better, but whenever you get down on yourself or think that there’s nothing else other than golf, kind of just makes you realize, it’s like, wow, there’s a lot — you could be doing a lot worse things. We’re out here, we’re just playing the game that we love with all of our friends. We’re competing. It literally couldn’t get any better than this, so that’s definitely one of the key things it left me with.

Q. Viktor and Matthew, you guys come into NCAAs with essentially the same scoring average this year, and you’re both about one stroke better than Charles Howell’s single-season school record. Is that something that you guys have talked about? And kind of more broadly, how much has each other’s success kind of spurred the other on this year?
MATTHEW WOLFF: I did not know that at all. I had no idea that it was Charles Howell’s scoring record or anything like that. That’s not really something we look at. I think we’re just going out there trying to shoot the lowest score possible, and obviously seeing Viktor play well pushes me to work harder and play well, and obviously it’s nice when it helps the team. I know I have confidence in every single one of these guys to go out and shoot a low number. It’s not just Viktor, it’s everyone. I see everyone else’s success, and it just pushes me to work harder and everything.

But I’m not really thinking about any of the accolades or the scoring average or anything like that because that’s pretty selfish, to be honest. I think I’m just doing what I can to help the team and all that stuff comes later if you do your part.

VIKTOR HOVLAND: Yeah, I mean, we’re just like robots, so we never have any thoughts out there when we play. No. (Laughter.)

But obviously we just try to do our best every week, and we’ve done, I’d say, me and Matt, fairly well throughout the season, and we’ve kind of just gotten in a groove where it’s — and now you kind of found your game and just played that every week, and obviously Matthew’s success and the rest of the guys on the team has helped me and pushed me to play better because you want to — that one guy is going to be the low guy for the week, I think we have five players, and even eight guys on the whole team that could potentially play our tournaments and be the No. 1 guy, and obviously you want to be that guy, and if you want to be that guy, then you have to play really well.

So in that way and kind of the way we’re talking to each other and cheering for each other, then we’re just making ourselves a lot better.

Q. Viktor and Matthew, when you guys — the past couple years with you guys winning last year and then winning the national championship, the vibe at Oklahoma State, has it changed at all? Has it grown at all? Is it different from when you first enrolled to now in May 2019?
VIKTOR HOVLAND: I’ve actually thought about that quite a lot, but it’s been hard to really pinpoint something. Definitely I came into Oklahoma State as a — I was a highly ranked amateur player coming to the school, but I wasn’t — I definitely wasn’t as good as I am now. And just the kind of — I was a pretty good junior golfer in Europe, and the depth is not that great compared to over here, and it’s easy to think, oh, wow, I just won or finished really high at an amateur tournament in Spain or whatever, and you come over to the United States, and guys on the team from Oklahoma State that are not even making the lineup are really good players. So for me, it was kind of — not a shock, but I found out just what was out there, and yeah, and then to kind of see myself climbing the ladder, it’s been a little different, especially with us winning a lot of tournaments, and it’s definitely — we’re in a different side, I think, just personally when I look back to my freshman year, but it’s difficult to kind of put anything (indiscernible) when I think back to my freshman year, it’s a lot different than it is now.

MATTHEW WOLFF: Yeah, I’d say it really hasn’t changed too much. (Indiscernible) at Oklahoma State as everyone knows, but as soon as I started playing the state invitational (indiscernible) and I just felt like the experience — it’s not like the last two years it’s gotten so much bigger or better or the vibe at Oklahoma State has — or the golf team has blown up. It’s not like students or fans or anything start loving us just because we started playing well. It’s been something that for the last 40, 50 plus years, it’s always been a sport that they’ve put an emphasis on at Oklahoma State. That’s part of the reason why I chose this school because coming from a high school where we had really good golf, but it wasn’t recognized at all. (Indiscernible) just played really well, and I feel like every other school is kind of, oh, yeah, football is a big sport, basketball is a big sport. Obviously other sports are big, but Oklahoma State is one school I thought that golf was almost — just as important or more important than all these other sports at this school, and I think it’s been like that forever, and I don’t think the last two years have changed it.


 

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