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The Matthew Wolff maturity narrative, the Mayakoba mangroves, and the unrecorded ace

November 04, 2021

Matthew Wolff plays his shot from the second tee during the first round of the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba.

Mike Ehrmann

What does it mean to have a breakout year on the PGA Tour? You’d typically connote that term with wins, awards and consistent contention. It’s reserved for on-course success. But it doesn’t have to be, and while Matthew Wolff watched many of his contemporaries add wins, and even majors, to their résumés in 2021, he worked on who he wanted to be and how he wanted to seek fulfillment early in his career. It was not smooth and pleasant—there were WDs, rounds in the 80s and full-on retreats away from the tour and major championship playing opportunities.

We won’t re-tell the entire well-known arc here and now, but he returned to tour life, found some success and spoke up and openly about his mental-health struggles and pursuit to simply to “be happy” as a young 20-something chasing what most people assume is a dream. You may think it’s treacly, but that’s just as much about success and growth as the other young guns adding victories. It was a personal breakout year of sorts.

In two events in the new season, Wolff has a top-20 and a runner-up coming in his last start at the Shriners. Then he began this World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba on Thursday by matching the course record with an opening round 10-under 61. The card was clean, featuring the equipose of an outward five-under 31 and an inward five-under 31. The round also matched his career low, which he set last year at the Shriners.

“Every single shot I was comfortable over, I was committed to,” Wolff said after the round. “Just ended up that, at the end of the day, last putt dropped. I didn't know it was a course record, it's really cool to hear.”

It was Wolff’s first competitive round on tour since that first event in Vegas a month ago, and the time at home seemed to be a reason for this immediate success in Mexico.

“We travel so much out here, not sleeping in your own bed is a big thing and being able to work on your game,” Wolff added. “If you have one week in between tournaments, it's kind of hard to adjust stuff because you feel like you're just getting on a plane and going to play in a tournament really quickly, where three weeks off, you definitely have some time to work on a few things and just really get rested and get your body in the right mode to get started again.”

Now he’ll try to use the next three days to follow up one of those contemporaries, Viktor Hovland, with his own win at this Mayakoba event. Big things were expected of Wolff from the moment he turned pro, but perhaps last year was exactly what he needed to better understand what he wants and expects of this career, especially in its earliest stages.

In Mexico, he’s rested, he feels in total control over the ball, and control over his attitude. “I feel like I've definitely gone through some stuff in the last six or seven months, but to be able to come out of it, have a really good attitude and, you know, everything did go right today, but even on the second hole I think I landed it a few feet from the hole and it ripped off the green,” he said. “Or on 11, my second hole. I think just my attitude about making good swings and that's all I can really control, it's definitely helped me out a lot and probably a good reason why I'm playing so well right now.”

Mangrove messiness

You see a name like Wolff and a number like 61 and just assume this is yet another PGA Tour course where it pays to bomb it. But Mayakoba is one of the rare venues on the PGA Tour schedule that does not distinctly advantage the biggest hitters. It is always a plus to be long off the tee, but the shorter hitters have an improved chance at a place like Mayakoba. We’ve heard Kevin Na speak of the handful of venues he targets for wins, places like Sony or Colonial or the Wyndham. Look at the winners in this event’s history and the list features that kind of player.

According to the broadcast, Matthew Fitzpatrick, one of the best iron players in the world but not one of the long hitters, said he looked at Data Golf and found this course fit his profile better than any on tour. Sergio Garcia compared it to Valderrama, a notoriously tight to the point of suffocating layout. There are lengthy stretches where you’d have no idea you’re playing near the sea, with holes claustrophobically running between dense mangroves.

If you pull driver and try to rip it, the wild miss here could likely mean a penalty shot. As we watched Carlos Ortiz chip out sideways from the dense mangroves, Curt Byrum exclaimed a player would be fortunate to not take a penalty stroke or have to hit out sideways over four days. Patrick Reed’s round unraveled with a few visits to “native areas” and penalty shots on 15 and 17 coming into the clubhouse.

Patrick Reed lines up a putt on the 12th green during the first round of the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba.

Mike Ehrmann

That doesn’t make the course hard, especially when the tour puts preferred lies, perhaps its preferred style of play at this point, into effect. But it does allow for carnage and messiness if things get wild, and it brings multiple styles of player into contention. This is good, and necessary, especially in the fall.

It also affirms just how dialed-in Wolff was on Thursday, both in approach and execution. The big hitter got his birdies on the par 5s, but pulled driver only once all round.

“I think my game plan coming into the week was just really keeping the ball in play off the tee,” Wolff said after the round. “I feel like when you start taking clubs that you're trying to push it up or, you know, get a little farther up there, that's when stuff narrows in … I only hit one driver all day and that was on 13. Even 7 and even 5, both par 5s on the front, I hit 3-wood on and just really felt like that's what fit the hole best for me.”

Prepare for heavy doses of the maturity narrative with Wolff, but it does seem to be on display this week. And also prepare for some misadventures in the mangroves for a few players come the weekend, which makes things interesting during this sleepy stretch of the season.

The perfect start

The coffee hadn’t even been poured for many on the East Coast when alerts of a Chris Kirk ace started coming through. The coffee had not been poured and also the cameras had not been turned on either as there was no video of the hole-in-one for Kirk, who started his round at the par-3 10th in the first group of the day..

In the early morning light, Kirk and his playing partners were unaware of the ace until they got up to the green and didn’t see a ball.

“Made me feel a little better about my 4:30 wake-up call this morning,” Kirk said after the round, which started with the ace that began a stretch of five under over the first four holes. “Yeah, No. 10, it was 204, perfect—got to land it a little bit short, so perfect 6-iron for me to land it a little short. I hit a really good shot. We were first group out, so it was still kind of overcast and dark, and walking up, as we got close to the green, it was like there's not a ball there, there's not a ball there. Justin, my caddie, was like, 'I swear I saw it rolling on the green,' so I was like, 'It's either in or just over in the rough,' and sure enough, Danny and Jonas actually got up there before I did and started celebrating early.”

While there was no footage of Kirk’s hole-in-one, John Huh did come through in the afternoon wave and match Kirk’s feat. Huh’s ace came at the shorter 8th hole, playing about 150 yards, but he also did not immediately see it roll in the cup. Huh needed several beats on the tee to wait for confirmation from up on the green that it had gone in for the ace.

Huh, like Kirk, finished his round well in the red and is T-11 heading into the second round. Kirk is T-3 at seven under after a day that yielded plenty of birdies and a sub-70 scoring average. Here’s hoping more wind comes for a greater challenge on the weekend.