Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Monday, Aug. 1, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2016-17 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Matthew Walker loves to attack a golf course, which contradicts his soft-spoken personality.
“Don’t ask me,” Walker said. “I’m shy in public. I guess it’s because I believe in what I do. I’ve been playing golf since I was 5. I have a simple swing. I just go out, smile, and have fun. I believe I can do well, and I go do it.”
The University of Iowa men’s golf team kicked off the spring season with a fourth-place finish at the Big Ten Match Play Championship last weekend in Palm Coast, Florida. Walker, a sophomore from Ottumwa, Iowa, won three of his four matches.
He is coming off an impressive fall season, finishing in the top 10 in four of five tournaments. He posted nine rounds of par or better and had a 72.26 stroke average. His approach to the game is centered on simplicity.
“I’ve had like five lessons my whole life,” Walker said. “Everything is self taught, so I’ve been doing it for a long time. A lot of guys try to tinker with this and tinker with that. If I struggle for a little bit, it’s just one little thing. It all comes back to tempo for me. My swing is pretty simple.”
Instead of cluttering his mind with golf speak to find an edge, the simple approach works just fine for Walker.
“Matthew doesn’t tinker a lot,” Iowa men’s golf coach Tyler Stith said. “We haven’t spent a lot of time on his golf swing. It has been more about refining his short game and working on his course management. He believes in his golf game and his golf swing.”
Walker was 5-years old when his dad challenged him: As soon as you can get a ball airborne on the practice tee, I’ll take you out to play. Walker was a quick learner.
“By 6, I was a decent golfer, and I could get it around,” Walker said. “I just built on that every year.”
Walker has always preferred playing over grinding away on the range.
“My personal opinion is you learn more on the golf course than you do hitting it on the range,” Walker said. “You don’t have any trees in front of you on the range. I’ve never been a big range rat. I’d just go play 18, 36, even more some days. That’s how you learn to hit different shots.”
Walker does return to the range when his game gets a little off, but he usually doesn’t spend much time there.
“It’s amazing how you can go out and play a bad round, and not hit many greens,” Walker said. “You go to the range, and after a couple of balls, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh.’ You go out the next day and it’s completely different.”
Walker was originally recruited by Mark Hankins, but never played for him. Hankins resigned as golf coach to become an Iowa athletic administrator before Walker’s freshman season. Stith was hired to replace Hankins, and one of the new coach’s first phone calls was to Walker.
“I told him how excited I was to have the opportunity to coach him, and how great the next four years were going to be,” Stith said. “I’m glad that he chose to come to Iowa.”
Walker arrived with a reputation as a high-caliber junior player, but it took some adjustment to get comfortable with the college game. Playing against guys with big-time reputations was intimidating at first, but Walker adjusted.
“I got to where I didn’t care who I was playing against anymore, and I started playing better,” Walker said.
Walker, Carson Schaake, and Raymond Knoll all finished in the top 10 at last season’s Big Ten Championships, where the Hawkeyes were runners-up to Illinois. Walker had a 73.73 stroke average in the spring, with a pair of top 10 finishes and eight rounds of par or better. Walker blew those numbers away in the fall season, and this spring is one more opportunity to show he has taken another step forward.
Walker will tell you he needs to get better from 100 yards on in.
That’s where I struggle, in a sense,” Walker said. “I’m decent, but I have a lot of room to improve in that area.”
Walker’s ultimate goal is to play golf for a living.
“This is a great steppingstone for me to get to my ultimate goal, to turn pro after college,” Walker said.
Stith has no doubt that Walker will be even better this spring than he was in the fall.
“I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to make him tick,” Stith said. “He’s a competitive guy already. I don’t need to motivate him. I do throw things out there from time to time just to remind him of what he’s capable of. But he’s someone who has a lot of internal motivation and comes to practice every day ready to work.”