It’s that time of year again, when college coaches hold their breath to see what kind of team they’ll have in the spring. Right now, Arkansas has a College Player of the Year contender in Brooke Matthews on the roster. But she could be a card-carrying LPGA member by Christmas, which would be akin to losing the star quarterback right before the bowl game.
Matthews, 23, made the cut on the number last week to advance to LPGA Q-Series in December, where 45 players will earn LPGA status. She flew straight from Florida to Mississippi to compete in The Ally for the Razorbacks, wrapping up seven consecutive days of competition.
“It’s kind of a win-win for me,” said Matthews, “that’s how I look at it. Either I come back to Arkansas where I’m really happy, or I live out my dream playing professional golf.”
Matthews grew up with the LPGA playing almost quite literally in her backyard. Wendy Ward and Vicki Goetze-Ackerman stayed with her family when the tour first came to Rogers, Arkansas, and set up shop at their home course, Pinnacle Country Club. Matthews was a dedicated gymnast at the time but said that week left a huge impression.
“I really wanted to be out there,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why.”
By age 12, Matthews had given up gymnastics and started playing tournament golf, outdriving most kids from the start. At Stage II of Q-School, Matthews made a pair of eagles in the third round on two par-5s, hitting an 8-iron into one for her second shot.
When she arrived at Arkansas as a freshman, Matthews’ swing speed hovered around 101 mph. Now as a fifth-year senior, she’s comfortably up to 107 but can push it to 110/111 on TrackMan.
Even so, it would take a special wallop to get one past former teammate Maria Fassi.
“I’m fine with admitting that she would outdrive me,” said Matthews with a laugh.
In figuring out what to do next, Matthews can look at the blueprint of two former Razorbacks. Gaby Lopez left early her senior year to pursue the 2016 Olympics (where she finished 31st); Maria Fassi chose to defer until after she graduated, becoming a bona fide star at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and winning the NCAA individual title in her final spring at home in Arkansas.
Matthews’ situation is different in that, because the pandemic cut her junior season short, she stayed on for a fifth year. She’ll graduate with a degree in marketing in December and would have to start a new major if she comes back in the spring, taking 12 hours.
Matthews won the first two events of the fall, shooting 63-64-64 at the Cougar Classic in South Carolina. Her 25-under 191 total crushed the NCAA’s previous 54-hole scoring record of 19 under.
She then enjoyed back-to-back events on home tracks, making the cut in Rogers at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship and then winning the Blessings Intercollegiate on Arkansas’ home course.
Matthews knows that LPGA road life is hard, to the extent that she can anyway. In college, everything is booked by someone else, paid for by someone else and organized by someone else. All she has to worry about is getting the grades, keeping her game in order and showing up on time.
“You kind of get your hand held throughout (college),” said Matthews, “which is probably something I take for granted more than I realized.”
Arkansas legend Stacy Lewis has given Matthews a bit of advice and finds the amateur’s outlook refreshing. The fact that Matthews has slowly worked her way up – cracking the Curtis Cup team this year – and is just now starting to ask questions about tour life, reminds Lewis of herself.
Since Matthews will have her degree by year’s end, Lewis said her decision on whether or not to turn pro should come down to how many events she’ll have to compete in early next year. If she finishes in the top 20 at Q-Series and earns her full card, “then yes, it’s worth it,” Lewis said.
If she’s 45th on the list and won’t get in many events until the summer, then staying in school and deferring might be the best route.
“Can you build a schedule with the status that you get to continue to improve?” asked Lewis.
That’s the question Matthews will need to answer. And that can be difficult to project because it largely depends on the decisions of those higher on the priority list. Player who finished in the top 45 at Q-Series in 2019 were seeded Nos. 129 to 174 on the initial LPGA Priority List. Most full-field events range from 120 to 140 players.
Should Matthews decide to defer, she can accept LPGA membership at any point until July 1, 2022. Her position on the priority list would be held until that point.
If she finishes outside the top 45, she’ll have full Symetra Tour status.
What A Fall Season It Was
Two Team Titles
Two Individual Titles
No. 1 National Ranking #⃣
1⃣9⃣ Rounds Under Par
— Razorback Women's Golf (@RazorbackWGolf) October 28, 2021
Head coach Shauna Taylor knows that what’s best for Matthews might not always be what’s best for the Arkansas program. If she earns a fully exempt card, Taylor agrees with Lewis that Matthews should turn professional.
“You’ve got to capture the moment,” Taylor said.
It gets murky, however, when conditional status is involved.
Both player and coach agree that course management has been the area in which Matthews has improved the most in her time at Arkansas. Some of the decisions she made at the Blessings to play away from certain hole locations made Taylor beam with satisfaction.
Has Matthews played her last event as a Razorback? That’s the strange thing about this time of year.
No one really knows.