Freshman Feature: Zack Neff
Everyone watched with anticipation as the golfer prepared to putt. Olympus High School had never won a state championship in golf before and if this player was able to sink a putt on 18, they would do just that. After carefully reading the putt, the high school junior stepped in and made contact. His teammates all crowded together a few yards back as they anxiously watched the ball roll. The silence that filled the course soon turned to joy as the ball fell into the hole and that golfer, now Utah freshman Zach Neff, was mobbed by his teammates.
"It was one of the coolest and best experiences I've ever had," said Neff.
The putt not only secured the 2017 Utah 5A Golf State Championship, but the first of Neff's two individual 5A State Championships. With the weight of the world on his shoulders, it could have been easy for the Holladay, Utah native to succumb to the pressure, but he was able to seize the moment thanks to his mindset.
"I always try to stay focused when I'm on the course and be levelheaded," said Neff. "Never getting too high or too low is what allows me to play at my best."
Growing up in Salt Lake, Neff competed in local youth tournaments and struggled to not let a bad hole rattle him. "I would get pretty mad and upset just because it's a frustrating game," said Neff. "But after a while, I realized that doesn't help me at all. I always played worse when I was frustrated, so now I take the approach of keeping my emotions in check and let the practice I've done carry my game."
Neff first started golfing when he was just four years old and quickly fell in love with all the different aspects of the game. "I really enjoyed just playing outside with lots of different people," said Neff. "It's always been an enjoyable experience for me. Growing up, the game wasn't super high-paced which allowed me to just go out there and enjoy playing."
He grew up playing local courses such as Mick Riley and Bonneville Golf Course. When he was eight, he competed in the Junior World Qualifier.
"It was a lot of fun but definitely a weird experience because I played so bad," said Neff. "It was the first time I really played competitively rather than for fun, but I picked it up pretty quickly after that."
A few years later, Neff would get the chance to compete in the US Kids World Tournament where he was much more pleased with his play. "That tournament was really important to me because it showed me that I'm not just good in Utah, but I can also play well in other environments."
In 2016, Neff began school at Olympus High where he would make an immediate impact on the varsity team as a freshman. He was named the Utah Junior Golf Association Player of the Year after registering 11 finishes inside the top 25. Outside of winning state, Neff would become a four-time, first-team all-state selection, finish in the top five at the Salt Lake City Amateur and win the 2018 FCG Johnny Miller Utah Championship during a decorated high school career.
One thing that helped Neff become successful was his relationship with his high school teammates. "I had a lot of good buddies on the team, and we always had a good time on and off the course," said Neff.
When it came time for Neff to pick a school to continue his academic and athletic career the decision was as easy as a three-foot putt. "I always grew up at Ute fan," said Neff. "So, I was the classic local kid who wanted to go here. Once I met the coaches and the guys on the team the fit was even better than I hoped."
Neff signed with Utah in 2018 but before he joined the team, he went to serve his church mission in Arizona. He served most of his time along the US/Mexican border before he was forced to return to Utah due to a leg injury. "I was down there for about a year and loved it," said Neff. "It was a great experience, and I had a lot of fun."
The injury kept Neff sidelined from golf for five months, something that was not easy for him to do and when he was able to return it took him time to regain his pre-mission form.
"I was itching to get back out on the course and that first week when I started playing again my swing was really bad," said Neff. "I was just mediocre for a while and then late in the fall, I started to regain my form. The winter break caused my game to regress again but that spring I felt like I was really able to get my game back to its original level."
This past fall in his first semester at Utah, Neff didn't compete in any tournaments but already feels like his game has progressed. One thing that has been especially great about being a Ute for Neff is that he can now work on his game in the winter thanks to the brand-new David S. Layton Golf Academy.
"The indoor facility has helped a ton," said Neff. "I feel like at the minimum I have been able to maintain my putting and chipping. To be able to hit balls whenever I want has allowed me to keep my game up."
As for the future, Neff looks forward to helping the team win big but knows the best way to do that is to just take it day by day.
"My goal is to help the team make it to regionals and then nationals," said Neff. "Then after that if I'm good enough, I'll try to go pro but I'm not looking that far ahead I'm just trying to take it one swing at a time."