Gulf Coast High School senior golfer Matt Ariza poses for a picture Thursday at Hideout Golf Club. A few days earlier, Ariza was at famed Pebble Beach Golf Links in California playing in the PGA Tour Champions' Pure Insurance Championship. GREGG HARDY/CSI
Sitting in the bleachers of Barron Collier High School’s gymnasium, waiting for a late August volleyball match to start against Gulf Coast High School, I made the acquaintance of Gulf Coast boys golf coach Kim Benedict.
She told me a little about her team, thinking it could make for a good feature story on what was this brand-new website. Her Sharks were led, she said, by an impressive young man, senior Matt Ariza, who was getting ready to play in the PGA Tour Champions’ annual Pebble Beach event, in partnership with The First Tee.
A few weeks later, I spoke with Benedict about doing a story on her Sharks squad. It was good timing as the Sharks were about to start their 2017 season after a long delay due to the terrible stretch of weather that culminated with Hurricane Irma.
Also, Ariza would be returning from Pebble Beach. Most certainly, he would have a story to tell.
But rather than lumping in Ariza’s experience playing arguably the most scenic golf course on planet Earth with a feature on him and his teammates, I thought it better to do a “Twenty Questions” piece. Benedict thought it a good idea as well and took it to Ariza, who signed off on it.
Ariza and I sat down Thursday outside the clubhouse of Hideout Golf Course after his team’s match against Community School.
(Note: At the end of this interview is a link to a video. Click on it and watch Ariza give me a lesson on my golf game.)
This interview has been minimally edited.
CSI: What’s your handicap?
Ariza: I’m a .2. It was scratch for a while, and I try to put in every score — good or bad — because I want a true handicap reading … because there’s people that go, “I’m a plus-3,” and then they’ll go out and shoot an 85. But they just won’t put that 85 down. So I like to have a true number. I had a couple of tournaments this summer where it was kind of hit or miss, and I put those (scores) in just to get a true reading, so I went from I think at one point I was a plus-.1 to a .2.
CSI: What’s the lowest you’ve ever scored?
Ariza: The lowest I’ve ever scored was a 69 up at the University Club of Kentucky Big Blue Course. That was a practice round, and the lowest I’ve ever shot in a tournament was 70 — I’ve done it twice. I did it up at Black Bear in Eustice in March and then I did it on Saturday at Pebble Beach.
CSI: Speaking of Pebble, is that the best course you’ve ever played?
Ariza: Hands down. Without a doubt. It’s just … because you always envision it. I’ve wanted to play Pebble Beach since I was 5. And with the hurricane coming in, I was like, “Oh I’m going to get a bunch of work in.” Then the hurricane came and we didn’t have power and no courses were open, so I couldn’t really train. Well, the way I trained was I went to (two-time PGA Tour winner) Dudley Hart’s house. His son Ryan, they were both like, “Yeah, just practice; we have a hitting net in our garage. So I was like, “OK.” So I did that and I trained for Pebble Beach on the Tiger Woods video games. But it’s just … like they have it in the video game, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” Then you get there in real life, and that video game, it does not even compare. The views are crazy. I’ve never really seen cliffs. I’m playing on a cliff. There’s an 85-foot drop in hole 8. I stood there and literally just leaned over and looked down. It’s nuts.
CSI: Finish this sentence: The best thing about Pebble Beach is …?
Ariza: The best thing about Pebble Beach is … wow, that’s tough. Um, it’s probably the greens. I’m just going to say that because I putted well. It was great having tournament conditions there.
The greens … they’re nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re super fast. They were breaking uphill. There was a mountain that you had to look at, and it went downhill and it was just pine trees, and the pine trees stopped and there was a dip. And everything broke towards the dip. So it didn’t matter if the putt was like this … and the dip’s over here, it’s breaking towards the dip. So that was kind of a struggle for me because I’ve never seen something where everything just broke towards one thing. Usually, you know, down here, you can figure out, “It’s breaking towards the lake.” But there you had to pay attention to the dip.
Watch out for the dip.
CSI: What is the easiest hole at Pebble?
Ariza: The easiest hole at Pebble? (Long pause) None. They’re all unique. (No.) One, it’s a very traditional hole; it’s no water, just tree-lined with some houses. Two, you know, you could see the water now; there’s no trees. Three is trees again, and then there’s water. And then four is on the water. Everything about that course is unique. They change it up all the time. The designers … that course (was built in) 1919 … and the only thing they’ve really done is pulled it back a little bit because everybody just got so long. The designers, they did a great job making you not get used to something. You come out to some courses and it’s just, “That hole looks like that hole.” They all just kind of blend together at one point. That course (Pebble), there’s a distinct thing about every single hole.
Every (hole) had you on your toes. If it was an easy drive and an easy approach shot, the green was a bear. If it was an easy green … getting to the green, you just didn’t even want to putt at that point. They threw a lot of things in front of you that you weren’t ready for.
CSI: What is the hardest hole at Pebble?
Ariza: The hardest hole, I would have to say, there’s three and they all ended up being my three favorite holes. Hole 6, Hole 7 and Hole 18. I mean, you could throw 17 into the mix, but I think if you actually hit a good shot off the tee, 17 is not that difficult. But Hole 6, it’s the par 5 where the tee shot’s down hill and the approach shot’s back up hill. The second shot’s completely blind, and if you’re laying up you have to hit something high. If you’re going for it — I went driver-four iron the first two days, and once we made the cut, I put it in the left bunker — usually I went driver/6-iron on top of the hill. But you can’t see anything and fortunately for us we were able to have TV towers in the back so I could at least pick the verrrry top of the TV tower to see there. That’s all I saw. They were like, “Oh, the pin might be there.” I was like, “OK.”
(Hole) Seven’s also scary because everything’s water. It’s 90 yards, but it is the longest 90 yards of your entire life. There’s the green, two bunkers and then the Pacific, so if you don’t like hitting bunker shots — and, you know, nobody likes the water — then that hole’s not for you.
And then 18’s just … the drive is terrifying. I draw the ball personally so trying not to just get through it and release is … I had to hit a straight ball or a little bit of a cut, and that’s not natural for me. When you see it leak a little bit to the left, you kind of hold your breath. And I hit one, it was way right on the last day. Fortunately, it caught the rough, and I was ecstatic because I didn’t even have to mess with the water.
CSI: What’s the most scenic hole at Pebble? Is it seven, 18 … or is there a third answer that people don’t know about.
Ariza: Seven and 18 are definitely scenic because they’re iconic. I think they’re iconic more than they are scenic. There’s the rocks that come out of the water, and you can see all those from seven and 18. Personally, though, I think the most scenic hole is … and I think it’s super underrated, too … is the par-3 fifth. Because there’s a little sound that cuts in, and there’s a little pier. But you can see six, and you can see the tee box at seven; you can see 17 green and 18 tee box. And then everything else, you just see … because it’s built on a little inlet; all right, a big inlet … but you can see most of the course from where you are, and it’s got the same effect. I think people say seven because seven’s higher up so you can see more, but you can see almost everything, especially once they take all the tents and stuff down, you can see the lodge; you can see 18 green. So I personally think five is probably the most scenic hole because everything is there that you want to see.
CSI: You got to Pebble via the First Tee program. Finish this sentence: The best thing about the First Tee program is … ?
Ariza: The best thing about the First Tee program is the opportunities that they give you. I’ve had friends go to Pebble Beach just to go play Pebble Beach. I’ve had teammates go to Pebble Beach to play in this tournament from the First Tee. I had friends come in to play this tournament because of the First Tee. I went out to Reno, Nevada — a place where I never thought I would go. I went there for a week, for an academy. I met probably about eight to nine people that I still talk to almost every day, and that is 100 percent because of the First Tee. I think they give people great opportunities to really expand and broaden their horizons and really kind of express themselves. You meet great people doing it; you meet great golfers, and they’re some of the best people that you’ll ever meet — not only the kids, but the people working there. They’re great mentors, especially when you keep in touch with them and you want to talk to them, you want to learn, they’re really great guides for your life.
CSI: What is the best golf course here in Collier County?
Ariza: Wow, you’re really putting me on the spot. The best golf course in Collier County has got to be Calusa Pines. It’s a course not too many people get to play. Fortunately, I’ve had a few friends who were members out there. Especially during season, on days when I’m not working, I’m out there practicing and doing all kinds of short game work and then go play nine two or three times a week with Dudley Hart and his son Ryan. It’s hard, but it’s so beautiful. It’s Collier County’s Pebble Beach.
CSI: Do you play a particular golf ball?
Ariza: I do. I play the Bridgestone Tour B-330S. I’ve been playing it now for just about a year. I played the Titlelist Pro V1X before, and before that I actually played the Bridgestone B-330RXS. I switched just because everybody was playing Titleist, so I just kind of went with the flow. And then I got fitted for a Bridgestone, and I was like, “No. I’m loyal to Titleist,” because I get very brand loyal once I get attached to something. And I was playing well with Titleist. And then the news came out that Tiger (Woods’) contract with Nike expired; so he switched to TaylorMade clubs — which I had (gone) straight TaylorMade except for the putter at that point — and a Bridgestone ball. So I looked at it and I was like, “That sounds familiar.” So I go in my bag because I had about a dozen of them and I look at them, and I was like, “That’s the ball Tiger plays; that is the ball I will play.” Because I’ve always been a Tiger fan … through everything. He’s a hero.
CSI: What kind of driver do you use?
Ariza: I use the 2017 TaylorMade M2. I had the last M2 before that, and I think they’re doing great things. It’s a lighter head, which is nice, but they put the weight in just the right spot for me. So I feel like I hit it a lot better than any other driver. Everybody makes their case for the Titleist and the new Callaway, but once you get comfortable with something, and then they make that something better, it’s hard to not want to have it. I love it. I actually have the 3-wood and hybrid, too.
CSI: What kind of irons do you have in your bag?
Ariza: I play the Callaway Apex. I switched from the TaylorMade SpeedBlades to the Apexes, just because of distance — distance is king, especially at this time in the game. There’s not a lot of guys who are out on tour winning who are hitting it short. … I hit the TaylorMade really high, so in the wind it didn’t really help out. I hit these (Apexes) lower; I feel like I have more control, and they just go straighter.
CSI: What’s your biggest pet peeve on the golf course?
Ariza: Biggest pet peeve is — I think this goes for a lot of people — is when you tell me what you tried to do when you didn’t do it. So if you draw it and miss the green left, you’re like, “Aw, I was trying to play the cut there.” I’m cool with it if you tell me once. But once you hit twice, three times and then you go 18 times, that is where I start to lose it a little bit.
CSI: What’s your favorite memory from playing golf in your early years?
Ariza: Probably my hole-in-one. When I was 8 years old, I was playing Arrowhead with my dad. We were playing Hole 4. Eight years old, playing red tees and so I’m just starting to play tees. I’m transitioning from where U.S. Kids has you in the fairway to now the forward tees. It’s 75 yards, 7-iron, and it went in. I didn’t see it go in. The sprinklers went (on) because we (were playing) after hours. It went through the sprinkler, went in the hole, and I was mad because I thought I hit it bad. I thought it missed the green. And he was like, “Yeah, that went in.” And I was like, “No it didn’t. Come on.” And so we got to the hole, and it was in the hole and I just went crazy. I don’t think I’ve had too many memories that can top that. I haven’t had one since.
CSI: Who is your favorite professional golfer?
Ariza: Tiger Woods. He just had a different game. Actually, last night I was watching the 2003 Presidents Cup highlights when it was in South Africa. And you have the Big Easy (Ernie Els), who … he crushes the ball and doesn’t swing through it. And then they show Tiger, and it (his swing) gets to the top, and then he’s done. Like there’s just an insane amount of swing speed. I loved his confidence. That’s what really drew me to him when I was younger. He’d hit a shot, and he would know where it was. I do it — I love when he hits it, club twirls and then just walks. I’ve done it before; I’ll do it again. But there were just things that he did that nobody else did that really drew me towards him.
CSI: More fun to watch: The back nine on Sunday at the Masters, or any day of the Ryder Cup?
Ariza: Back nine of the Masters is always fun, especially when it’s close. When there’s a “oh, he needs to make birdie on 18,” and then they make birdie on 18 and then there’s extra holes. I love that. I’ve been to a Ryder Cup. I know how the Ryder Cup is. That is like nothing else. It’s electric. The pros are having fun, which is crazy to see because usually they’re all business all the time. But they’re having the time of their lives. The fans are electric; they love it. I have to go Ryder Cup.
CSI: What is the best foursome you’ve been a part of?
Ariza: Honestly, I don’t play a lot of foursomes. Usually, if it’s a foursome, it’s the high school team. All of my foursomes at Pebble Beach were crazy. The first one, it was myself, Russ Cochran, the president of Kellogg’s brand and (the fourth) owns a music management firm — right now, he manages Journey. He’s managed Aerosmith; he’s managed Boston, and I love old rock. Love classic rock. So when he told me that, that was awesome. The next day was myself, Mr. Cochran again, (the third was) into money management but he did it for Fortune 500 companies, so he’s had some big-profile clients, and then I had the ex-CFO and current head chairman of Callaway golf. And then the last day was myself, Russ Cochran again, another junior and Woody Austin. And I loved Woody Austin growing up. I was a big fan of “Toy Story,” so when I four 4, I was like, “Woody!” That’s my guy. Out of those three (groups), I don’t know if I could decide because they were all fun in their own right.
CSI: What’s your dream foursome?
Ariza: I’ve been asked this a couple times. Myself, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods … those three for sure. And then I don’t want to go all golfers, so I’ll go Bill Gates. He’s a visionary, and those guys were also visionaries in their sport, and I hope to be in the next generation of visionaries for the game of golf and, hopefully, a business venture.
CSI: Do you have a favorite golf movie? (And bonus question: Do you have a favorite line from that move; one that I can print)?
Ariza: Favorite golf movie is “The Greatest Game Ever Played” with Shia LaBeouf. I was a huge fan of it. I used to watch it before every tournament. Favorite quote from that movie, and I use it to this day … actually, I have two, and they’re in the same scene. One is “Read it, roll it, hole it” and (the other is) “Easy peasy lemon squeeze.” I don’t know why, but he made par first hole of the U.S. Open; he was terrified, and so when I make a par or birdie on the first hole — I get nervous on the first hole. I still shake a little bit. I’ve been playing tournaments for 12 years. So it’s just comforting to be like, “Easy peasy lemon squeezy.” Nerves are out of the way. … You can relax the rest of the round a little bit.
CSI: How far will the Sharks go this year?
Ariza: All the way. I truly believe we have the team to take it all the way. We’ve got great talent up front, and that goes all the way through. We’re a very close-knit team, too, which is amazing. You don’t get a lot of those teams since golf is such an individual sport, but you have a group of seven guys who just really enjoy playing golf with each other, which I think is great. We talk to each other in between holes when we see each other. We’re a stronger team than we’ve had any year that I’ve been here. We’ve finished top 10 in the last two years in states. We’ve always had one guy who hasn’t been playing golf for very long, but is just a natural athlete. I’m not going to name any names over the last two years. I don’t want to call my friends out like that — actually they’re not even friends; they’re brothers. I don’t want to call them out like that. But this year we’ve had seven guys who eat, sleep and breathe golf. We’re a very focused group. Even when we have fun, it’s very blocked fun. Serious; in between drills you talk, you laugh a little bit, you joke around; serious. That’s what I think makes us different. We play for one another.
CSI: Can you give me a tip on my golf swing?
Ariza: Of course. Love to.
(See video link below.)
SPOILER ALERT! Matt Ariza has fixed my swing and thus has become public enemy No. 1 to all pool cage screen repairmen in Southwest Florida.
“Fixed” might be a bit of an overstatement, but I can tell you that I now have far greater command of my golf ball off the tee. Thanks, Matt.
OK, roll it! Or, click it.