BY Sean Fairholm
Even as his peers stormed the PGA Tour, Brandon Wu was in no rush to be a part of it.
The same players he battled – and often beat – throughout the past four years in college have spent the past six months garnering headlines and lofty praise. Matthew Wolff put the hype machine on full blast by winning the 3M Championship in his fourth professional start, only to be followed a few weeks later by Collin Morikawa capturing the Barracuda Championship during a stretch of remarkable consistency for a rookie. Viktor Hovland didn’t win, but he flashed brilliance through the summer months before bulldozing his way through the Korn Ferry Tour Finals to secure a PGA Tour card.
And then there was Wu, a national championship winner and All-American at Stanford. His college accomplishments warrant inclusion in conversations about this ballyhooed crop. But while his friends were introducing themselves to the golf world with an electric guitar solo, Wu planned his 2019 to the tune of a circuitous indie-rock ballad.
Nobody would have flinched if Wu turned pro after a sublime spring at Stanford. He just knew it wasn’t the right long-term play for him personally.
“I didn’t feel like I was completely ready,” Wu admitted. “Golf is interesting because confidence is such a big thing and if you go before you’re ready and you struggle, you might not ever return to the player that you were. So I’ve taken it slow, knowing that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there. It’s kind of a laid-back mentality.”
As a reward for his patience, the precocious 22-year-old from Scarsdale, N.Y., put together a standout summer. Wu went 3-0 in match play to help Stanford win the national title and qualified for both the U.S. Open and Open Championship without an exemption, the youngest amateur to do so in more than 50 years. And he went 3-1 at the Walker Cup at Royal Liverpool to help the Americans win on foreign soil for the first time since 2007.
Along the way, Wu valued his time as an amateur while keeping a healthy perspective on his professional aspirations. In a day and age when most college players build a plan around the quickest way to earn tour status or sign a lucrative equipment deal, Wu let all of those things occur naturally.
“I would celebrate how he made a very conscious decision to stay amateur,” said Conrad Ray, the head coach at Stanford. “He didn’t have to do that, but there were some neat things he wanted to accomplish before making that next step.”
There’s a long list of feats Wu crossed off his bucket list before turning professional in late September, but the constant theme throughout was an unwavering passion for the game as evidenced by a whirlwind, worldwide summer odyssey.
Wu collected five top-10 finishes in college events in the spring before he led the Cardinal to a national championship in Arkansas. Five days later, he qualified in Columbus, Ohio, for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and then returned to Arkansas to represent the United States in the Arnold Palmer Cup. With only three days between the Palmer Cup’s conclusion and the first round of the U.S. Open in California, Wu showed no signs of fatigue and finished T35 against the best professionals in the world. He collected his diploma on the 18th green, one of the lasting images in golf this year.
At the same time Wolff, Morikawa and Hovland were starting to cash large checks, Wu spent more than a week in Scotland preparing for a 36-hole Open Championship qualifier against cagey European Tour veterans with only three championship spots available. He was the medalist and advanced to play at Royal Portrush.
And how many players would make the cut at a Korn Ferry Tour event in California, fly to Peru to represent the United States in the Pan American Games and then take a red-eye flight to North Carolina just in time for the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, all within the span of eight days? Wu arrived a few hours before his first-round tee time, shot 65-72 and earned medalist honors.
“Everything this summer came one after another without big breaks in between,” Wu said. “A lot of it hasn’t even sunk in yet.”
Given his outstanding college career at a major program, it’s surprising to learn that Wu considered himself an average junior prospect. Having been born in Danville, Calif., about an hour from Stanford, Wu lived in China for five years but ultimately developed his game in the Northeast at Deerfield Academy, about 35 miles north of Springfield, Mass.
He played only six months a year because of the short season and referred to himself as a good junior player who got lucky when Ray took a flier on him. Wu had intentions of playing for Rich Parker at Dartmouth, but Parker believed Wu’s skill set would translate beyond the Ivy League. He sent an e-mail asking Ray to take a closer look at Wu, and it became clear there was a strong fit given the right balance of academics and athletics.
Wu arrived at Stanford undersized and inexperienced. What he became for Stanford was the ultimate showcase in how good coaching and work ethic can translate into results.
“I remember one practice where he was at the point of tears with his putter,” Ray said. “He just couldn’t get the ball in the hole. And he kept that memory as motivation all four years, developing into statistically one of the best putters in the college game. That’s pretty cool for me to see.”
After being on the All Pac-12 freshman team, Wu steadily climbed until he was All Pac-12 his junior season. Even with the success, he reached a point last fall where he felt lost with his swing, prompting him to visit instructor Jeff Smith in Las Vegas. He took one lesson in December and one in January – that was more or less all Wu needed to gain confidence going into 2019.
“He’s very mechanical in the way he teaches and he’s more like a scientist, but that kind of worked for me,” Wu said. “I came away with a better understanding of what I had to do and why I had to do it.”
Armed with knowledge to self-correct, Wu started his tear in the spring and hasn’t slowed down. He made his pro debut at the European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews, where he missed the cut, and accepted an exemption into the PGA Tour’s Houston Open, where he finished T17. He then conquered one of the most difficult steps of all when he advanced through the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School to earn membership on the circuit for 2020. His finish at the upcoming final stage next month will go a long way to determining how many starts he will receive on the Korn Ferry Tour next season.
If Wu’s pro career develops as his amateur career did, it won’t be about speed. It will be about an unwavering desire to enjoy the game like he did in 2019, a year he will never forget.