“He played 17 holes at age three,” Matt’s father and VCU Golf Coach Matt Ball said. “And just conked out, exhausted. He didn’t make it to the 18th hole. He played from 150-yard markers and he’d hit it, run and chase it, hit it, run and chase it. He’d stop for frogs and stuff.”
Matt Jr. doesn’t remember that round or the subsequent nap, but he’s been playing golf as long as he can remember. When your dad is a golf coach, it only seems natural to find a home on the links.
“I’ve never known anything different,” Matt Jr. said. “It’s just part of life for me. It’s that much integrated into our family. That’s how we were raised, playing golf. It never really crossed my mind to not play golf.”
Matt Jr. and his younger brother, Adam, grew up on the game. It’s an experience they’ve shared with their dad, who was first the club pro at Richmond Country Club before taking over the VCU Golf program in 1999.
This year, the Ball family tradition began a new chapter when Matt Jr. decided to attend VCU and play golf for his dad. The elder Ball tried to allow his son make his own decision on college. Matt Jr. heard overtures from a number of ACC programs, including Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Clemson, but never seriously considered going anywhere else.
“I pretty much knew the whole time that I wanted to come and play for him,” Matt Jr. said. “It was interesting to see who was interested in me, but I knew I was coming to VCU the whole time. I love it here in Richmond, honestly. Of course the whole thing about playing for my dad, who’s been my swing coach ever since I started playing. He knows my swing better than anybody.”
He appears to be in good hands. Matt Jr. was VCU’s best golfer during the fall season. In five tournaments, the 18-year-old Richmond native averaged 72.93 strokes per round. He was VCU’s top finisher in three of the Rams’ five tournaments and placed in the top 20 twice.
The VCU freshman’s performance surprised his father, who marveled at his son’s consistency. One person who wasn’t shocked was Matt Jr., who sets very high standards for himself on the golf course.
“I definitely didn’t expect to have the lowest stroke average on the team, but I was expecting to play well,” Matt Jr. said. “I had a couple of bad rounds in there, but those are to be expected in the game of golf. It definitely lived up to my expectations, so that was good.”
Matt Jr. has quickly acclimated himself to the college lifestyle. Both he and his parents agreed that he’d live on campus, rather than continue to stay at the family’s home. At VCU, he’s just another guy on the team. He receives travel and practice plans like the rest of the team, usually via text, and has the same obligations.
The situation has many potential headaches. Matt Jr. isn’t just another college athlete that the VCU Coach has to teach to negotiate a sand trap. At some point, Matt Ball, a former VCU golfer himself, has to wear his “dad” hat as well. With some 18-year-olds, that might prove difficult, but Matt Jr. hasn’t given reason for many sleepless nights.
“I’ve had to bite my tongue on a couple of occasions as a father versus a coach, but for the most part he’s just such a really good kid and doesn’t get in really any bad trouble,” the elder Ball says. “He’s just the kind of kid who does what he’s supposed to do, is where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there and studies hard, makes good grades, he’s played well. I just send a general message out to the team and never have to worry about it.”
Although his golf career is on track now, it wasn’t long ago that Matt Jr. considered walking away from the game that has helped this father and son become so close.
A few years ago, with his progress on the course stalled, the younger Ball’s frustration grew. Although he was a successful golfer by most standards, he wasn’t measuring up to his own. No matter how hard he worked, Matt Jr. couldn’t break out, couldn’t move forward, couldn’t reach that next level.
“It was just frustrating for me because I knew that I was doing everything that I needed to do to be good, but I wasn’t succeeding,” he said. “I wasn’t getting the success that I thought I should have. A lot of it was big-time disappointment after disappointment. Sometimes it was hard to get the motivation to go out there and practice.”
At one point, the VCU Coach says he thought his son was going to pack up his clubs for good.
“Yeah, I thought about it. I really did,” Matt Jr. says.
However, during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, something clicked.
“He said to me, dad, I like my golf swing, and I don’t want to mess with it anymore,” Matt Ball Sr. said. “And at that point, to me, he took ownership of his swing and his game, and we haven’t messed with his golf swing since. And he has taken the golf swing he’s got and learned to trust it more and learned to play the game better with the swing that he has.”
A short time after that conversation, Matt Jr. started playing the best golf of his life. After a successful summer, he entered four tournaments during the winter and won three while placing second in the other. Matt Jr. has managed to carry over that momentum into his freshman year at VCU.
Matt Jr. is trying to blend in with his team and his classmates, but he admits that he still makes it home for dinner once or twice a week “to get some of that home cooking” and visit with his mother, Kim, and his brother Adam, a sophomore in high school. As hard as he tries, however, the VCU business major won’t ever be just one of the guys or just another golfer on the team. The experience, frankly, is much greater for both he and his father.
“It’s awesome, and nothing would be better than if my other son came to play here and they got to play together for a year,” said Matt Sr. “I want them to be their own people and make their own decisions and the fact that he decided to come here, I think that’s any dad’s dream, that he would want to.”