June 16, 2021
Jeff Haynes / USGA
SAN DIEGO – Matthew Wolff walked the 4th hole at Torrey Pines on Wednesday, tucked a tee in the ground, wiggled his trademark, felt the wind left to right from the Pacific, took the club up and out and dropped it into the slot and torpedoed his TaylorMade into the San Diego sky, the ball flying down the right center of the fairway.
He grinned. Fist bump. Wrapped up his driver. Then he slipped over to chat, ready to answer the question that is on every golf fanatic’s mind.
How are you matt
He stopped. Took a deep breath. Considered.
At the last US Open, Wolff looked like a world champion. On Sunday at Winged Foot last September, he held the 54-hole lead and went to the first tee, chatted on his phone and bristled with carefree jock-swagger. And although it didn’t close that day – he finished second to Bryson DeChambeau – all signs indicated he’d officially arrived. A few weeks earlier he had finished T4 in the PGA Championship. A week later he finished T2 with the Shriners. It shot to number 12 in the world. Top professionals raved about his game. “We all know how talented Matt is,” said Rory McIlroy. Everyone believed in Matthew Wolff.
Except for Matthew Wolff.
“I tried so hard to be perfect,” he said on Wednesday, nine months later, on the eve of another US Open. “A lot of people out here try to be so perfect. And I want to please everyone, I want to make people happy, I want to play well, I want people to stand for me. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure and I think it got a little intense. It became too much. “
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George Gankas, his long-time trainer and confidante, strolled next to Wolff the whole afternoon, chose the turn in the backswing and kept the mood in between.
“How is Matty Wolff?” He gestured as Wolff slammed a bunker shot into the kick-in range and threw his wedge to his caddy Nick. “Right now – at this point, right now? He’s pretty good. He’s relaxed. “
Wolff has not played competitive golf in two months. The last time he played, he signed the wrong score at the Masters and got DQ’d. That came after an 83-WD in the WGC Concession and a 78-WD in the Farmers Insurance Open. Since taking second place in Las Vegas in October, Wolff has played 10 tournaments without breaking the top 25. Over time, the frustrations increased. His patience was failing. It didn’t take a body language expert to see that Wolff wasn’t involved.
“One bad shot, it goes down,” said Gankas. “That’s what he’s working on: taking things a little easier. He seeks that happy place when that makes sense. He’s working on being good to himself. “
“I live a great life and I know it,” added Wolff. “But I think there are a lot of things that people don’t know when they’re a professional golfer or a professional athlete in general. Mental health has been talked about a lot in the sports world lately. And I’m not putting myself in the spotlight; I’m not someone who speaks out on topics or anything. I just think it’s important to take care of yourself and make sure you’re happy. I tried to work on it. “
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When Wolff is on, he’s all on. He was there at a photo shoot in GOLF Magazine in autumn. He was enthusiastic, inspired, the life of the party. It’s not common for the subject of a cover shoot to be reviewed by the photographer’s assistant, but Wolff did. (“How are you? Do you need something? Get some water, wait a minute. I’ll get some water.”) He has a way of making people around him feel special.
It is harder for him to do the same for himself. His profession requires the pursuit of perfection, but it also requires the pursuer to realize that his goal is unattainable. Wolff is fighting there.
“Golf can be damn brutal,” he said succinctly.
Wolff skipped the PGA championship. He jumped over the monument. He needed a break. Instead, he’s spent the past few months hanging out with family and friends and recharging his batteries. He had bought a house in Jupiter to be his training ground, but he hadn’t been there in months. Oklahoma, where he went to school, feels a lot more like home.
But now he’s back. Wolff’s colleagues are also happy to see him. Xander Schauffele came in for a hug at the shooting range. Sam Burns crossed a fairway to say hello. Bubba Watson, who has been open about his own ups and downs with his mental health, spoke extensively with Wolff about the range.
“The people were super nice,” said Wolff. “You remember that everyone goes through things.”
On Thursday he will be back in the bright light, once again to the breach, to play competitive golf on a large stage and keep the score for 72 holes. Odds makers don’t think much of his chances – it’s 200: 1 or longer on some books – but that’s how he prefers it.
“I love to fly under the radar,” he said. “It is great.”
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“He’s not a favorite for the cut,” added Gankas unsolicited. Does Wolff know that? Gankas smiled slyly. “I made him aware of it. He likes it when people doubt him. The more doubts we get from others, the better it will be for him. “
It’s a complex equation, happiness.
Chances are, of course, that Wolff could make these books look silly. It’s built for a course like this, with long rough and slack. When he hit the drivers on the range, he increased his swing speed to the high 120s, his ball speed approaching 190. Bomber numbers. The ball bounces off its club face.
“He doesn’t mind the rough at all. It’s strange, ”said Gankas. “At Winged Foot, the guys got it out of the rough. He took 8 iron, 6 iron and hit it on the green as if it were nothing. “
Getting back on the tour for the toughest test of the year is a bit of an added challenge. But Wolff insists he’s excited to be back. He’s watching the game, even in his absence, and conversing with him is a constant reminder that he’s an excited 22-year-old.
“I’m happy to see this fellow Wilco [Nienaber] bomb, ”says Wolff. “He could be on tour the longest!”
That’s part of this week’s focus: having fun.
“I’m not here to ‘bounce back’,” he said. “I have goals this week that are a little different from the goals I had before.”
It is clear from the way Wolff speaks that he is trying to convince himself. He wants these goals to be his goals, so he will bring them to life even if that is not a given.
“I know that I’m getting very hard on myself. I know i do. But I’m starting to realize that that’s not fair either, ”he said. “I’m trying to enjoy myself a little more.”
Dylan Dethier is Senior Writer for GOLF Magazine / GOLF.com. A native of Williamstown, Mass. joined GOLF in 2017 after fiddling around on the mini tours for two years. A graduate of Williams College in 2014 where he majored in English, Dethier is the author of 18 in America describing the year he lived off his car when he was 18 and in each state played a round of golf.