The world’s No. 6-ranked amateur golfer didn’t realize how much he liked competitive golf until he left it.
Aaron Wise, a sophomore Oregon men’s golfer, has been swinging a golf club since he was just a year old, when he would use his neck for support as he swung. The club handle sometimes left welts on his neck and blisters on his hands.
“I swear to God, the golf club actually helped him learn how to walk,” Wise’s mother Karla Kane said.
But by the time he reached middle school, the game was more of a chore than fun. His parents, Kane and Marc Wise, would drop him off at the golf course only to see Aaron goofing around, not taking practice seriously. Marc recognized that his son was losing interest and decided to take Aaron out of tournaments for a couple years.
He took up other sports, such as tennis, and continued to play golf for fun. But near the end of middle school, Wise had to choose between the two. He ultimately returned to competitive golf two years after he left, rediscovering the love for a sport he knew before walking and talking.
“It definitely fired me up,” Wise said. “Taking something away makes you realize how much you miss it.”
In hindsight, Wise likely made the right choice to return. Wise, 19, has won four tournaments in two years at Oregon, quickly establishing himself as the Ducks’ most reliable golfer. His presence has been especially important this season. The Ducks have faced added pressure by virtue of hosting NCAA Championships at the Eugene Country Club May 27-June 1.
But regardless of when and where Oregon’s season ends, it will be Wise’s last with the team. Wise talked with friends and family in the last few months about turning professional, but he didn’t make it official until last week, when he won the Crown Isle Q-School tournament in Courtenay, British Columbia. Wise will begin competing on the Mackenzie Tour of PGA Tour Canada in mid-June.
“It was a tough decision to make and obviously we have it pretty well here playing school golf, but it kind of just made sense,” Wise said.
The win at Crown Isle gave Wise fully exempt status on the Mackenzie Tour, meaning that he has an automatic invitation to every tournament during the season. The winners of each tournament in 2015 took home anywhere from $31,500 to $36,000.
The prize money represents a stark contrast to where Wise was a few years ago.
Between course fees, gear and private coaching, golf is a notoriously expensive sport to pay for, so Wise looked for cheaper ways to play in high school. He found a job as a “cart guy,” cleaning and loaning golf carts to customers at both the Trilogy Golf Club — 10 minutes from Wise’s high school, Santiago, in Corona, California — and The Links at Summerly, which is near his home in Lake Elsinore.
A work day for Wise went as follows: Go to the gym, come back home, go to school, go to golf practice, go to work on the course and return home to do school work before going to bed.
“That’s his life,” Kane said. “Even now when he comes home … it’s the same thing. Every waking moment he is on that golf course if he can be. That’s where he’s happy.”
As Wise started receiving scholarship offers to play college golf, he was faced with another decision. He ultimately chose to come to the University of Oregon, where wet and windy conditions could prepare Wise for professional golf. Wise and his family also felt Oregon head coach Casey Martin gave him the best chance to grow, allowing players the free will to make mistakes and learn from them.
Martin officially signed Wise to a National Letter of Intent in November 2013 during Wise’s senior year of high school. Martin said at the time, “I think he has a chance to become one of the best players in Oregon history to be honest.”
But perhaps even Martin didn’t know Wise would prove him right so quickly.
A year after signing his letter, Wise, in just his fourth collegiate tournament, won the Ka’anapali Intercollegiate in a sudden-death playoff and became the first Oregon freshman to win a tournament. He finished his freshman season with two wins and earned Pac-12 second team honors.
His consistency has become especially important for the team this season.
In April, the Ducks played their last regular season tournament, the Western Intercollegiate at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz. Oregon struggled as a team, while Wise battled with Stanford junior Maverick McNealy throughout three rounds, and each surpassed the previous course record. Wise ultimately lost by two strokes to McNealy, the top-ranked world amateur, but kept the score close until the very end.
“You can tell he really wants to beat [me], and I really want to beat him,” McNealy said. “But I think what’s really cool about this rivalry is that we’re both good friends off the course and admire each other’s games.”
McNealy and No. 1 Stanford are one of 13 teams Oregon will face in the Tucson Regional May 16-18. The Ducks must finish fifth or higher to reach the NCAA Championships in Eugene. In addition to Wise’s departure, the Ducks will lose seniors Zach Foushee and Brandon McIver at the end of the season, making this their best chance to win a national championship for the foreseeable future.
Aside from his play in tournaments, Oregon teammates have followed Wise’s meticulous approach to practice. As part of his warm-up routine, Wise sets up a mirror opposite his putting stance to square his hips and shoulders and has a line drawn across the mirror to trace the arc of his stroke.
“I’ve watched Aaron with his routine doing that putting drill,” redshirt junior Sulman Raza said. “Ever since, I’ve seen results with my putting and I think everybody else is catching on. We’re all trying to get to that same level as him.”
Turning professional after sophomore year is rare in college golf and is unprecedented in Oregon history. Even Daniel Miernicki, who still owns the Oregon individual wins record with five, didn’t leave the Ducks until after his senior season in 2012.
But those who know Wise best are quick to acknowledge his maturity in golf and beyond. It was only a matter of time before he made the decision.
“I feel I’m playing well enough to make that next step,” Wise said. “I’m excited to make it and ready to see what the future holds.”