LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | Matthew Wolff was in a dangerous place.
All the good work he had done early in the first round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines – three birdies in his first four holes to suddenly find himself in the morning lead – had gone away as quickly as it had come.
A bogey. A three-putt double bogey. Another three-putt bogey.
When his tee shot on the par-5 18th hole (his ninth) went sailing to the right, Wolff dropped his driver behind him and slumped at the disappointment.
In his first competitive round after a self-imposed two-month mental-health sabbatical from the PGA Tour, Wolff could have found a dark place in the late-morning sunshine. He’s lived it before.
The frustration. The self-loathing. The unmet expectations.
In a sense, Wolff had gone away so that when he came back the inevitable moments like this wouldn’t be so all-consuming. While it was just one day in the hardest tournament in the world, Wolff won the day for himself.
“I handled it pretty well (Thursday) and a lot better than I have in the past,” Wolff said after posting a 1-under par 70 on an unforgiving layout.
“It was really hard. I love the fans, I love being out here and I want to play golf for everyone. … I think I just put too much pressure on myself.” – Matthew Wolff
The last time the U.S. Open was played – in September at Winged Foot – Wolff was the 54-hole leader before finishing runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau.
This time, Wolff was stepping back into the arena, an event that feasts on fragile hearts and minds. Wolff hadn’t played since the Zurich Classic in April. He’d been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard at the Masters. He withdrew from the World Golf Championship in Florida. He skipped the PGA Championship last month.
It was in search of inner peace as much – or more – than his golf game.
At a time when other prominent athletes have spoken out about mental-health challenges – most notably tennis star Naomi Osaka – Wolff has been privately dealing with his own issues. Being 22 with a hefty bank account and a future superstar tag doesn’t come without strings attached.
Stepping away from the game may have been as necessary as it was difficult to do.
“It was really hard,” Wolff said. “I love the fans, I love being out here and I want to play golf for everyone. … I think I just put too much pressure on myself.
“It was a hard decision because I’m new to the tour and it’s my first or second year and I didn’t want to walk away. … I don’t even think I could, to be honest, and then when I started to get to a bad enough spot, I was like. ‘I need some time.’ ”
It’s easy from the outside to look at professional athletes as something other than the people they are. They’re highly trained, operate on a different wavelength than many of us and are generously rewarded for being among the best in the world at what they do.
In Wolff’s case, success came quickly. He won his fourth professional start on the PGA Tour and, with his quirky swing and aggressive style, he joined Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland front and center as the faces of a new generation.
When the game began taking more than it was giving, Wolff found himself in a place he’d never been.
“I think seeing 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. So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade me in a heartbeat,” Wolff said.
“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.
“And mental health is a really big problem and we play a lot of golf, play a lot of games … any professional athlete has to deal with a lot more stress and pressure than most people and it’s, it just kind of got to me. But I’ve been working on it. I’ve been learning and I think that’s all I can do.”
When Wolff stood over his opening tee shot Thursday morning, the fog slowly lifting along the California coast, he felt the nerves again. When he blocked his tee shot far to the right, Wolff took a breath and reflected on the past two months.
“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,” Wolff said.
Two double bogeys?
It’s the U.S. Open.
It’s a testament to how good Wolff can be.
What does the rest of the U.S. Open bring?
Perhaps, more importantly, what comes beyond this week?
“I didn’t really have any confidence before I started today,” he said. “Maybe just because I was so anxious or nervous or scared, but it’s just awesome being out there having my buddy Nick (Heinen) on the bag. I went to college with him and he’s really helped me a lot through this.”
“I just can’t emphasize it enough, more than the score that I shot I was just happy to actually be smiling and laughing out there because, like I said, I haven’t done it in a long time and it’s hard to do when there’s this much pressure and people and eyes watching you and stuff. So I made a huge step in the right direction and I have a heck of a long way to go, but I’m working my way towards it.”
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?