SAN DIEGO — This is a championship with its own language. Unlike Latin it is an easy language to learn, because all of its terminology—like “good bogey” and “graduated rough”—flows from a simple premise. It is this: The United States Open is a grind. It is physically imposing and mentally demanding and anything less than the utmost fortitude is punished. It is referred to, ad nauseam, as a test.
That connotation is all well and good, and, most importantly, true. It is also a golf tournament. Just a golf tournament. Matthew Wolff knows this. What he went through to know this … well, he’s still working through it.
“I just … I think the biggest thing right now that I'm trying to do is enjoy myself again and just take care of myself really,” Wolff said. “I love these fans and I want to play well for them, but right now I'm just really trying to be happy and I, like I said, I live a great life and I want to enjoy it.”
Wolff is on the leader board after a first-round 70, three shots off the morning-wave lead at Torrey Pines. For those returning from a nine-month backpacking sojourn through the Himalayas, this math checks out. When the U.S. Open was last contested, Wolff became the youngest player in tournament history to hold the 54-hole lead. Though a final-round 75 translated to a runner-up finish at Winged Foot, Wolff—just a month removed from a T-4 at the PGA Championship—was clearly on the precipice of something big. Golf can be overzealous with its rising stars, but Wolff’s game was backing those expectations up, expectations he did not downplay.
“I played really tough all week. I battled hard. Things just didn't go my way,” Wolff said that Sunday in Mamaroneck. “But first U.S. Open, second place is something to be proud of and hold your head up high for. I'm just excited to learn from this experience, and it's definitely not the last time that I'm going to be in this spot.“
However, what has happened from then to now makes Wolff’s name on the board a surprising sight. The biggest surprise being that he’s here at all.
When Wolff visited Torrey Pines in January, he shot a first-round 78, then withdrew with a cited hand injury. A month later he turned in an opening-round 83 at the WGC-Workday at The Concession; he dropped out before Day 2 of the no-cut event without explanation. He was visibly frustrated at the Masters, and while he was going to miss the weekend, he signed an incorrect scorecard leading to a disqualification. There was similar angst playing two weeks later with Collin Morikawa at the Zurich Classic team competition, resulting in a quick exit for the duo. Following New Orleans, Wolff took an unannounced sabbatical, one that became public when he decided to skip the PGA Championship in May.
“It was really hard,” Wolff said of the decision. “Like I said, I love the fans, I love being out here and I want to play golf for everyone and I just, I think I just put too much pressure on myself.”
Wolff had eschewed his new home in the tour’s popular hangout of Jupiter, Fla., for his college town of Stillwater, Okla., in need of social confines that can’t be found on the road. (He is, after all, 22 years old.) As Wolff explained, the lack of socialization was impacting his mental health, which was impacting his performance. And maybe his performance was impacting his mental health.
That is a tough club to swing for any person no matter their profession, let alone one who performs on a public stage. So Wolff decided the best way to take care of both was to do it out of the spotlight, knowing full well that light would be turned brighter in his direction for stepping away.
“I think seeing that all these other athletes coming out and being like 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, and I live an amazing life,” Wolff said. “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, like you don't always have to play good.
“I know I want to, I want to always play good, I want to always please the fans. But I just kind of realized that the more I've been taking a little bit of time off, the more I just realized I was like, I just need to enjoy myself and be happy.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, especially given he’s in the nascent stages of a hopefully long career. He also realized what roads he was going down and didn’t like where they were headed. When that happens in life, sometimes the best thing is not to turn around, but pull over.
Yet here Wolff is at Torrey Pines, back after eight weeks off. Which, in itself, is curious; clearly there are more welcoming returns than the U.S. Open. But Wolff chose this beast in order to keep his battles from turning into something worse.
“I figure if I shoot 78 there's going to be a lot of people that do it as well, so it won't look, I won't stand out quite as much,” Wolff said. “I mean, not an easy decision to come back at this time, but I thought it was the best thing, I talked with my team and I'm glad that I did.”
So he played through it Thursday in front of thousands at Torrey and millions at home. At times, he played beautifully. He made eight birdies on his round and held the lead at multiple points. His driving was solid, his approaches were true. He was fired up when those birdies fell and routinely flashed that devil-may-care smile that is a gravitational pull for galleries. Wolff looked like the wunderkind the sport had fallen for not that long ago.
Then, at times, there was wildness. There were two doubles—one off a three-putt from three feet, the other from a flared approach and poor chip shot—and three bogeys. His short game was a bit of a mess. He looked like a guy who had taken two months off.
“A lot of good, a lot of bad,” Wolff said. “I didn't have any expectations.”
The one thing he didn’t look was down. Even when the going has been good for Wolff in his fledgling career, he was prone to run hot, a displeasure he would often aim at himself. Sometimes fans and media can miscast outbursts or how they affect one’s play; in that same breath, it’s normal to worry how much self-criticism is healthy. Though his Round 1 scorecard portrays a roller coaster, Wolff kept those emotional dips at bay.
“I was just like, you know what, I just need to start the round, I just need to get those butterflies away,” Wolff said. “And it's, I, after coming off of a break like this when you're struggling this much mentally I don't know if there's ever a right time to come back and maybe that right time is way down the road, but I kind of told myself I'm like, Dude, I've been making progress on enjoying myself and lightening up a little bit and accepting the bad shots, because everyone hits them, and, I don't know, I just, I just want to be happy, man, that's pretty much all it is.”
His score puts him squarely in the mix as the afternoon wave hits the course. A guy trying to find a balance in his life will add contending in a major championship to that juggling act. What awaits is a gauntlet. Or maybe what awaits is just golf. Matthew Wolff is still working through that question. He’s determined to find an answer.
“Right now I'm just really trying to be happy,” Wolff said, “and I, like I said, I live a great life and I want to enjoy it.”
Happiness. That was a word used repeatedly after Wolff's round. That is not a word in the U.S. Open language. But it’s a word, and an aspiration, everyone can understand.
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