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Appreciative Wolff Weathers Up-and-Down Round

June 17, 2021 San Diego, Calif. By Dave Shedloski
A break from the rigors of PGA Tour golf might be what fledgling star Matthew Wolff needed to rejuvenate his game. (Chris Keane/USGA)

Matthew Wolff wasn’t having any fun at his job, and when you are not having fun at your job – even if your job is most others’ idea of sporting recreation – it’s probably a good idea to step away, recharge and refocus, and then reconsider your career options.

And when you have done that, when you realize the “unbelievable life” you’ve been leading, when you again allow yourself to enjoy the talents that you possess, then good things are probably going to follow.

Which is largely the path Wolff has traversed in recent weeks, all the way to Thursday’s opening round of the 121st U.S. Open. Competing for the first time in nearly two months, Wolff didn’t have to force a smile that had all but disappeared from his face earlier this year. It came naturally, not because he had just made eight birdies in a 1-under 70 at Torrey Pines, but because he found some joy in trying to shoot it. And it could have been any score.

Of course, when you make eight birdies, the most in a U.S. Open in 15 years, and the score hovers just below par, you’ve probably made your share of errors, too. “Some good, some bad,” was Wolff’s succinct opening assessment of his day.

But it was mostly good – even when it was going bad for a while.

“My caddie and I have been working really hard about just staying in the level head space and focusing on the shot ahead of you and not the shot behind you,” the third-year pro said. “I’m probably going to be struggling with that and learning how to handle bad shots for the rest of my career, but I’m young and I’m learning and I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

Runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau in last year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot after holding the 54-hole lead, Wolff wasn’t feeling all that awesome about his game or the challenges of being a professional athlete a few months ago. He was miserable at the Masters – if you can believe that – struggling with his attitude. That, he said, was the turning point during a stretch of golf he just wasn’t used to producing.

He was disqualified after an opening 76 at Augusta National for signing an incorrect scorecard, the final straw of an eight-event run of frustration in which he withdrew twice after first-round implosions and finished no better than T-28, that coming in the WGC-Dell Match Play.

“The Masters, I think, was pretty much the turning point; the entire time my head was down and I hated it,” Wolff said. “I didn't love being out there, I didn't enjoy it and it was hard for me.”

Who could have seen that coming? Preceding his U.S. Open bid, Wolff finished T-4 in his major debut at the PGA Championship at Harding Park. He ended up T-2 in Las Vegas in his next event after Winged Foot.

Golf is hard. Life is hard. The golf life is really hard, even if, yes, it seems glamorous and financially lucrative. The former NCAA Division I Player of the Year at Oklahoma State won his first PGA Tour title in his third pro start at the 2019 3M Open in Minneapolis, riding the wave of an amateur career that ended a month earlier with the NCAA individual title.

He was prepared to win. But he was not prepared to lose – and even the greatest golfers lose quite often. Tell that to a 22-year-old kid who undoubtedly knew that but still had trouble coming to grips with the notion.

“I think the hardest part is people, fans … or anyone, unless you’re actually a professional athlete or playing a sport,” he said, “you just don’t know the emotions that come along with it and how much you want to please everyone and play for your fans and on top of that make money and, like, it’s a living.

“In college golf, if you shot 78, you go back and your coach would pay for your food and you would be chilling, because you were on a full-ride scholarship or whatever, you know what I mean? But you come out here, you miss five cuts in a row and you're like, ‘Damn, I haven’t made a paycheck.’ And it’s just a lot. And it's really hard.”

Mental health is a topic more athletes are willing to address publicly, be it two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from Wimbledon on Thursday, NBA guard DeMar DeRozan or retired NFL quarterback Andrew Luck. Wolff embraced his own issues after hearing their stories.

“I think it’s more [that] it led me to taking time off,” he admitted. “I think seeing all these other athletes coming out [saying] mental health is such an important thing and whether it's something that's going on personally or you're not playing well or you're not enjoying it or family or anything, it's just like, in this life, it's just so important to be happy. I live an amazing life. So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade me in a heartbeat. And I needed to just kind of get back and be like, ‘Dude, you live an unbelievable life, you don't always have to play good.’”

Returning at the U.S. Open seems at first glance like a bad idea, but Wolff thought it through and decided that playing in golf’s hardest event would temper any expectations. Plus, he said, “I figure if I shoot 78, there's going to be a lot of people that do it as well, so I won't stand out quite as much.”

And then he went and stood out.

His eight birdies were the most in the opening round of the U.S. Open since Mike Weir converted eight at Bethpage Black in 2009. It was one more than the championship-high seven birdies Justin Hicks registered in the first round at Torrey Pines South in ’08. According to stats maven Justin Ray, Wolff is the only player in the last 40 years – more than 15,000 U.S. Open rounds – with eight or more birdies and multiple double bogeys or higher.

Right, the other part of the Wolff scoring equation was that he suffered two double bogeys, the first coming after missing a 2-foot putt for bogey at the par-3 16th. That error was part of a three-hole mess that erased three early birdies. His card featured three bogeys, another double at the seventh and just five pars.

He very easily could have gone south when he reached the 18th hole, his ninth of the day, at 1 over par, but he birdied that hole and four of the next five as well. 

It was a huge moment, or collection of moments, a telling sign that everything was going to be all right, at least on this day. But he was determined to make it be all right, whatever numbers he was penciling onto his card.

“I started to fall back a little bit, but that's kind of when I realized like, all right, well, I fell back a little bit and things weren't always going [to be] good,” he said, “But I'm still enjoying myself and having fun and being happy, and in my opinion, right now, that's kind of what I'm working on. The most important thing for me regardless of how it goes out there [is] I just want to make sure that I'm enjoying myself, because it's awesome to be out there.”

Life is hard. Golf is hard. But both sure are wonderful, too.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.