Last month’s U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes brought several surprises in that all four semifinalists could consider themselves an underdog. Tyler Strafaci, Charles “Ollie” Osborne and Aman Gupta all hailed from powerhouse college golf programs, but none of them were considered the best, or in some cases even the second- or third-best, players on their respective teams this past season.
Then there was the fourth semifinalist, Matthew Sharpstene, an excellent example of how deep the amateur game has become in the last decade.
The 21-year-old from Asheville, North Carolina, carried middling 2020 results into the U.S. Amateur, missing the Western Amateur cut by nine strokes and the Southern Amateur cut by six strokes. He opened the North & South Amateur with a 64 and advanced to match play before losing to Jonathan Yaun, but otherwise Sharpstene (pictured above with father, Jeff) had done little to signal a dazzling U.S. Am performance was forthcoming.
Yet the way he played in Oregon spoke to the potential coaches have seen in him while competing for West Virginia University for his first two years of college and since joining UNC Charlotte this summer back in his original hometown. Sharpstene stunned observers by rallying from a 2-down deficit to sink match-play wizard and 2019 U.S. Amateur runner-up John Augenstein, and he continued to surprise when he coasted past 2015 U.S. Junior winner and current LSU stalwart Philip Barbaree in the quarterfinals.
Sitting one match from a traditional invitation to the Masters and spot in the U.S. Open, Sharpstene took a 1-up lead on Osborne through seven holes, but flamed out late in a 4-and-2 loss. Even in that defeat, viewers getting their first look at Sharpstene could see his raw ability, a muscular 6-foot-3 frame serving as the foundation for a powerful golf swing.
“I hit the ball well all week and I played a lot better than it looked like in that semifinal match,” Sharpstene said after having a week to process the outcome. “I told my dad after the round, (the course) just played completely different from what I had prepared for. All of my notes were for playing Bandon in the wind, and in that last round it hardly blew at all. I hit a few shots I thought were perfect and ended up in some bad spots.
“But I’m still taking a lot of positives from it and overall it was a great experience.”
“Playing in the Big 12, you’re going up against Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and a couple other guys who are on the PGA Tour now. ... I really enjoyed it and made some great friends, but I’m excited to be with Charlotte now.”
Sharpstene was the No. 4-ranked high school golfer in North Carolina for his graduating class, a Charlotte/Mecklenburg County player of the year and a three-time all-state selection, but he chose to head north for college, choosing a school not known for its golf programs. He was an immediate hit in Morgantown, West Virginia, as a freshman, becoming his school’s first Big 12 Golfer of the Month, setting a school record for lowest round (64) and registering five top-20 finishes. A year later, Sharpstene was the team’s best player – he earned his way onto the Ping Division I All-Midwest Region team and ranked No. 55 in the nation with a 70.73 scoring average.
Despite that success and the experience he gained, coming back from warm-weather tournaments to find snow on the ground started to get old.
“Playing in the Big 12, you’re going up against Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and a couple other guys who are on the PGA Tour now,” Sharpstene said. “We went to some great places like Southern Hills, Isleworth and Greenbrier … I really enjoyed it and made some great friends, but I’m excited to be with Charlotte now.”
Charlotte head coach Ryan Cabbage admits that he missed the boat on Sharpstene the first time around, letting a strong local player out of his sight during the initial recruiting period a few years ago. When he saw his name enter the transfer portal this past year, Cabbage immediately knew Charlotte would be an ideal landing spot for the youngster – Sharpstene has loads of family nearby, is close with several players on the team and would be able to take advantage of improved facilities.
In a sense, both coach and player realized they would be better together for the last two years of Sharpstene’s college eligibility.
“I kind of messed that up originally,” Cabbage said. “I dropped the ball on that. This is a kid who played two years of high school about 10 minutes from my house. … We did offer him a scholarship, but we waited too late. Actually the first time he and I sat down after he entered the transfer portal, that’s the first thing I told him. I said, ‘I messed it up the first time around and I’m not going to mess it up this time.’ ”
Charlotte may not be the first college golf team you think of, but the squad had climbed well within the top 50 teams in the country before the pandemic. Sharpstene’s new teammate John Gough, who also made match play at the U.S. Amateur, has starred for a team that projects a lot of upside. There will be no official tournaments this fall for the 49ers, given the announcement from Conference USA that all sports except football will not be played. But it’s expected they will resume this spring.
While what lies next is a mystery for everyone, college golf or otherwise, Sharpstene, his father, Jeff (who serves as his son’s instructor), and Cabbage agree on what it will take for Sharpstene to progress as a player.
“Physically there isn’t a golf hole he can’t play from a length and power standpoint,” Cabbage said. “But I think like a lot of players his age, the next step will come from 150 yards and in.”
To that point, Sharpstene was brutally honest when talking about his wedge game. He says he likes to model his overall game after Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka – both from a power standpoint and not showing much emotion on the course – but he has his work cut out to match their approach abilities.
“My wedges have gotten better, but they aren’t great,” Sharpstene said. “I’m just average compared to the people I’m playing against. I need to buckle down and work on that.”
He will have plenty of time this fall to prepare for the rest of his college career. If his U.S. Amateur performance is a true indication of what he can accomplish in the amateur game, don’t be surprised next time Sharpstene gets himself into contention of a big event.