SAN DIEGO — In many respects, Matthew Wolff’s opening round at the U.S. Open mirrored his brief but turbulent career.
He began strong—3-under par through four holes and in the lead—just as he did on the PGA Tour by winning in only his third start. Then came the rough sledding, a bogey-double bogey-bogey run that rocked him, much as the last eight months has with WDs, a DQ at the Masters, no shows at the Players and PGA Championship and a two-month break mid-season.
One can only hope that Wolff’s closing effort—four birdies that settled him on the positive side of the ledger with a one-under par 70—suggests his future trajectory.
“A lot of good, a lot of bad,” he said afterward, a verdict equally applicable to his year as to his day. “I fell back a little bit and things weren’t always going good, 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 and the most important thing for me regardless of how it goes out there.”
Wolff’s comments after his round were more compelling, and more important, than any of the events logged on the scorecard here at Torrey Pines on Thursday. A popular and likable young man opened a vein on the pressure that drove him to step away from the PGA Tour, the crushing weight of expectations placed on young shoulders, the disorienting effect of always trying to please someone else.
He explained his recent absence with unsparing honesty.
“I didn’t want to walk away. … Then when I finally started to get to a bad enough spot, honestly I was like, you know what, I need some time,” he said. “The biggest thing right now that I’m trying to do is enjoy myself again and just take care of myself really. I mean, 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 has many attributes to which shallow cynics might point to as evidence that he has little to complain about. There’s the $5.7 million in career earnings at age 22, the PGA Tour victory, the movie star good looks, the sublime talent. There’s always an antipodal side though.
Twenty-two is awfully young to have every working day judged a success or failure based on a number on a card, awfully young to realize there’s nowhere to hide and no way to bluff, awfully young to adjust to having others be paid to judge you, awfully young to grasp that a good day today only increases the expectations for tomorrow. Life on the PGA Tour is a lonely existence, even for popular and upbeat guys. Relationships are tougher to maintain and quicker to break. And when a man’s focus is on that ‘total’ box on the scorecard, his life can become more about that sum than its parts.
Naomi Osaka is a year older than Wolff. Last month she walked away from a shot at her fifth Grand Slam title, withdrawing from the French Open citing mental health worries. She will also skip Wimbledon later this month. Her example on prioritizing mental health, on seeking out her own equilibrium, did not go unnoticed by Wolff.
“I live an amazing life. So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade me in a heartbeat,” he said. “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.’ 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 I just need to enjoy myself and be happy.”
Perspective is a hard-won thing at 22 years old. Wolff gives the impression of a young man determined to steady his ship, who understands that what others expect of him need not necessarily determine what he expects of himself, and that he does not have to do it alone, in silence.
Thursdays at major championships are often focused on feel-good stories, usually journeymen unfamiliar with the glamorous end of a leaderboard enjoying a moment. There’s a transience to those tales though, as if we implicitly know that what we applaud after the first round won’t be there after the final round. Wolff’s 70 was the kind of rollercoaster ride (just five pars) that doesn’t lend itself to success at a U.S. Open, but he arrived here with no expectations. In fact, he deliberately chose the toughest championship of all for his return.
“I figure if I shoot 78 there’s going to be a lot of people that do it as well, so it won’t stand out quite as much,” he said with a wry laugh.
His round of 70 was encouraging, but Wolff knows that success this week is measured by something more indelible than pencil scratches on a scorecard.
“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. I’m probably going to be struggling with that and learning how to handle bad shots for the rest of my career,” he said. “But I’m young and I’m learning and I’m just trying to enjoy it.”