May 18, 2009
By Larry Watts
Landing a berth on the University of Illinois golf team was a big break for Matt Hoffman. Yet, it took a bad break for the Thornhill, Ontario native to get there.
In the spring of his junior year at St. Robert Catholic High School, Hoffman was coming off the fifth green at 1 or 2-under in the high school championship when his destiny took a strange twist.
"It was pouring rain and there was a steep hill at the back of the green, which was pure mud," he says. "I wasn't paying attention when I stepped down. My foot slipped right out from under me and I landed on my right leg."
Making matters worse, according to Hoffman, was the ambulance ride.
"The ambulance had to come out onto the course to get me," he says. "Driving back down the fairway had to have been the most painful experience I've ever been through. There were so many bumps along the way and my leg kept bouncing up and down."
Aside from one tournament, Hoffman lost his entire summer of golf while being saddled in a cast for three months. The time away from the game cost him dearly during a critical recruiting period.
"Fortunately, my high school coach knew coach (Mike) Small and he put me in contact with him," he says. "I came down here for an official visit and that was it. I loved it so much."
Hoffman, who took a redshirt season his first year and now carries sophomore eligibility, says the opportunity was too good to pass up. The Demirjian Golf Facility, the indoor practice area for the Fighting Illini golf teams, was opening in the summer of 2007 and the tutoring from Small was second to none. The low club professional at the 2007 PGA Championship, Small won his sixth straight (seventh overall) Illinois PGA title last summer.
"Just from his playing background, I knew this was a coach who could teach me how to play the game," he says. "He's always sending the team emails telling us how he is ripe for the taking. He'll tell you how his back is hurting and then he goes out and shoots a 66. He tells us he wants us to beat him, but deep down we all know he's so competitive.
"I used to think my ball striking and driving were the strongest parts of my game, but I have learned so much about the short game and how important it is through playing with him. I have really improved the variety of my shots to the green and have learned how to use better technique on the trajectory of my shots."
The golf bloodlines run strong in the Hoffman family, where his parents are both avid golfers. In fact, his mother Liz, who is the athletic director at the University of Toronto, competed in the British Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateurs. His younger brother, Mark, competes for Humber College back in Canada.
"The whole family usually goes out and plays nine holes together during our summer evenings; we have some fun matches," he says. "We play in the Family Classic on our home course and it's usually a good rivalry. I team up with my dad and Mark plays with our mother because my dad and brother don't get along well on the course. They'll yell at each other the entire time and wouldn't last 18 holes together. My brother has this personality where he thinks he is never wrong and my dad just freaks out.
"My brother and I basically grew up with hockey sticks in our hands during the winter and golf clubs in our hands during the summer. But I was around 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds as a freshman, which is the draft year for high school players in Canada, and that was a time when teams were looking for players much bigger. That's when I started to concentrate more on golf, but my brother and I still manage to play a little hockey."
Every winter break the Hoffman family heads to Florida for three or four weeks and rents a home on a golf course. After dominating his brother for most of his life, Matt says their matches usually go 50-50 now.
"We have a lot of good battles and it's fun to have a brother of the same caliber," he says. "We know each other's games and we're able to critique each other.
"We also like to get in each other's kitchen. It usually starts out fun, but then by the back nine, if he's beating me, I don't want to talk to him. He'll still keep trying to talk to me because he wants to get me out of my game. It's all good."
At Illinois, Hoffman has been a steady performer, averaging 73.26 strokes per round, as the young Illini team just won the Big Ten championship and is looking to get back to the NCAA Championships for the second straight year. They head to Galloway, N.J. to play in the regional this weekend.
"The great thing about this team is we are young, but we have a lot of experience," he says. "We finished 17th last year in the NCAA Championship (missing the 15-team cut by three strokes) and that proved to be a great learning experience. We have two sophomores who played a lot as freshmen, including the NCAA Tournament, and two seniors with junior eligibility.
"The Big Ten is a deep conference, but we knew we could win it this year. Now that we have won that title, we're going ahead with the idea we can win the national title. That's the attitude we have to have."
Hoffman considers himself to be the vocal leader of a team that has won seven tournament titles this year.
"On paper, Scott Langley is probably our best golfer and does a good job of leading by example. But Chris DeForest has really come on in the past month. We have five guys capable of winning every tournament, which is why we are so successful. We don't depend on just one guy; it's a good balance."
Hoffman says he is fortunate to have his mother make the trip to several of his tournaments. Her keen eye has been helpful in post-round evaluations.
"She knows my game better than anyone," he says. "She talks to me about little tendencies in my game that I don't see or coach Small doesn't see. She is very good when it comes to giving advice."
With two more years remaining at Illinois, the kinesiology major is unsure of his career path.
"I wanted to go into teaching, but that time commitment just didn't fit into my schedule with golf," he says. "I kind of think I would like to get into broadcasting, but it's too late to switch majors again. That's why I'll probably go into grad school. When my friends and I get together to watch some baseball, sometimes we'll put the game on mute and I'll start doing the commentary.
"With kinesiology, I could still get into teaching and coaching. It would be cool to be an AD. My mom has to deal with a lot of messed up stuff and it's a tough job, but I think I would really enjoy working with student-athletes."
And what about a golf career?
"I really haven't thought about it much," he says. "If I turn pro, my heart has to be 100 percent into it. The first thing I want to do is win a national (team) championship.
"Going pro would be a huge grind. So many guys have been trying to do it for 15 years and still haven't made it. There are so many stepping stones and so many great players out there. I'll just have to play it by ear."
This summer, Hoffman will try to accumulate enough points in the Canadian National rankings in order to make the Canadian National Team, which usually selects the top three or four players to play against other countries.
"I was in the top 20 two years ago and I think I cracked the top 10 last year," he says. "But I also have some obligations down here, like playing in the Western Amateur and the U.S. Am."