Staff Spotlight: Matt Nicholoff

Matt Nicholoff, second from right, played in our Friends of the Foundation Tournament on Sept. 22 with Kyle Barthelmy, one of the high school seniors in our after school program, and colleagues Meghan Costello and Omar James Mendoza.

Matt Nicholoff started as a tutor in our after school program this fall. He recently fielded some questions from Charlie Hanger, digital content manager for The Bridge Golf Foundation.

CH: Tell us about your upbringing — where you’re from, family, etc.

MN: I’m from a small town in New Jersey called Frelinghuysen. Most people hear New Jersey and think of either a wasteland of suburbs or the Jersey Shore, but I am from an area in the northwest part of the state that is characterized by rolling hills, tall trees, and fields of corn. My older brother and I were very lucky to be raised by two great parents who worked hard to teach us about responsibility, work ethic and independence from a very young age. One story I like to tell is that my parents used to give us our lunch money for the week to buy school lunch. If we packed our own lunches, we got to keep the money as our allowance. So naturally, as an entrepreneurial first grader, I was on a steady lunch diet of sloppily made ham and cheese sandwiches.

CH: You are in your final year at Columbia after starting at Bard College. How did you come to make that change, and what are you studying?

MN: My journey through college is an interesting one. As a high school junior, I was recruited to play baseball at NYU. The NYU coach told me that as long as I didn’t apply to the Stern School of Business (tougher to get into than other NYU undergrad programs) that my admission to the school was all but guaranteed. So what did I do? I applied to Stern and got rejected! Bard was my backup school, and I was a baseball recruit there as well. It turns out that getting rejected from Stern and NYU was the best thing to ever happen to me. I look back at my three years at Bard with immense gratitude and nostalgia.

While pursuing a mathematics degree, a couple of my friends convinced me to look into what’s called the Combined Plan Program with Columbia. The gist of the program is if I worked my butt off, took the right classes and met certain GPA requirements, I could transfer to Columbia after my third year at Bard, stay for two years and graduate with a degree from each school. Sounded like a good deal to me. Now I am in my final year at Columbia, finishing up my Operations Research degree in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

CH: What is Operations Research?

MN: It’s a type of engineering/applied science that is concerned with optimizing decision-making. The coursework is a mix of math, computer science and a little bit of business.

CH: How did you find out about the Foundation and, though it’s only been a couple of weeks, what are your impressions so far?

MN: There is a Columbia Facebook page called Jobs and Internships. On this page, 99 out of 100 posts are of zero interest to me, but I just happened to be scrolling through when the words “Bridge Golf Foundation” popped up on my screen. As a golf lover, it was only right to take the time to read the whole post. I have tutored for a long time and love teaching people, especially high school students. The combination of golf and tutoring was very attractive to me, so I emailed my resume, and the rest is history.

In my short time working with the Foundation, I have a few key takeaways. First and foremost, the work being done at the Foundation is crucial if our students are going to get where they need to be academically. Secondly, the young men at the Foundation — who all have varying backgrounds, interests and personalities — are brought together by the wonderful game of golf. This deceptively simple and endlessly complex pursuit has a way of bringing people together unlike any other sport. Lastly, I have been impressed with the conviction and focus of all of our staff members. The people involved with The Bridge Golf Foundation are giving a lot of time and energy to make an impact.

CH: You picked up golf fairly recently and really have the bug. How did you get into it, and what makes it so compelling for you?

MN: I came into college as a baseball player. I loved playing baseball and still have a great passion for the game, but the summer after my freshman year I started playing golf. It was love at first sight. I parted ways with baseball and saved up so I could buy a student-membership at the local semi-private Red Hook Golf Club just a short drive from Bard’s campus. Luckily, one of my dear friends, who had been battling shoulder injuries for years, also ended his baseball career and joined RHGC with me. I spent countless hours on the range and on the course developing my game, getting to know some of the members, and growing my passion.

It’s hard to describe why I love golf so much. One reason is that there are few sensations more addicting than hitting a well-struck golf shot and tracking it before it lands near the pin. I’m also really motivated by the competition with others and also against myself. But most important for me is that golf provides a great way to escape reality for a few hours and socialize not just with close friends but also with friendly acquaintances and even complete strangers.

CH: Talk a little about your baseball career and what you learned from playing team sports.

MN: While I was not a college baseball player for very long, I was lucky enough to meet some of my closest friends in the world through the experience. I will say this: 99.9% of college athletes will never play their sport professionally, but if you come into college on a sports team you will be blessed to have anywhere from 10-30 friends (depending on the sport) starting the second you arrive on campus. I can’t overstate the benefits of having a social support network in college, and being on an athletic team is the quickest way to meet people you have common interests with.

The question of team sports is one I think about often. Sometimes I tell myself that I wish I could go back to childhood and play golf instead of baseball. But I think that isn’t quite right. Golf is an individual sport, and being on teams for pretty much my whole life has taught me many valuable lessons. The young men at The Bridge are extremely lucky because they are getting the best of both worlds. They are playing an individual sport every day, but they are also part of a team. The Bridge Golf Foundation is their team. More than 30 well-rounded young men plus a world class support staff is about as good as a team can get.

CH: Do you see a connection between the skills required to succeed in golf and academics?

MN: Without a doubt. My favorite way to compare sports to school is to look at the difference between talent and skill. Athletic or intellectual talent is a gift people are born with, but skill is something people develop through hard work, discipline and perseverance. In my experience in the classroom and in athletics, skill beats talent in the long run. Think about a guy like Michael Jordan. Sure he was gifted, but he was cut from his 9th grade basketball team and, through hard work and perseverance, went on to become one of the biggest legends in sports history. My business idol Ray Dalio struggled in high school but turned his game around in college and now runs the biggest hedge fund on earth. Work ethic creates skill, and skill beats talent.

CH: Besides golf, what are you into — books, movies, sports teams, etc.?

MN: I am an avid sports fan outside of golf. It’s now football season, and while I root for the New York teams, my true loyalty belongs to my fantasy football teams. I’m currently in three leagues. I’m also a Yankee fan and am eagerly awaiting their playoff run. Outside of sports, I do a lot of reading. In the past year I’ve read somewhere between 20 and 30 books. Pretty much all of them are finance-related. I have an interest in the way economies and markets work and intertwine with daily life. And like the majority of engineering students, it would be an accurate assessment to call me nerd. I love geeky movies and TV shows (superhero movies, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, etc.), video games, and watching random YouTube clips of things ranging from famous magicians to sports cars to Dustin Johnson highlights. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the clip of DJ putting it to two inches from 433 yards in Kapalua.