Among those who managed to finish on the Torrey Pines South Course after the 90-minute fog delay, this board had the omnipresent major guy Brooks Koepka and the local comer Xander Schauffele two shots off the lead at 2-under-par 69. It had players ranked 139th, 173rd and 375th, two of them those noted brothers from Italy, 2018 British Open champion Francesco Molinari (No. 173) at 3 under par and Edoardo Molinari (No. 375) at 1 under par, even as, with the former residing in Los Angeles and the latter in Turin, Italy, they had not seen each other from December 2019 until lately.
The board had Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain (No. 139) in his second-straight strong U.S. Open start at 3 under par himself. And above all, at 4-under-par 67, it had Russell Henley, a 32-year-old Georgian — the American Georgia, not the European-Asian one — who hadn’t played the annual wintertime PGA Tour event here since 2014, who shot a 79 that time, and who said, “I don’t really remember besides just leaving the course feeling like I got beat up.”
Later, in twilight, in charged some of the players with the gaudy rankings. No. 18 Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa had two holes left to play when darkness hit, but the habitual contender and runaway 2010 British Open champion had climbed up next to Henley at 4 under par. No. 15 Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, the reigning Masters champion, and third-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain got it done at 2 under par. No. 11 Rory McIlroy made his way to 1 under par with a closing eight-foot birdie in the gloaming.
Maybe most curiously, down the board at 1 under par, stood a man of preposterous youth who upholds both the Charles Dickens adage about every human being a mystery to every other and the emphasis recently upon the mental health of athletes. Matthew Wolff’s post-round interview became that rare occasion in which an athlete said, “I mean, I’m only 22. Don’t they say the brain evolves at like 25 or something like that?”
What envy Wolff might have stoked in 2019 and 2020. As a Californian coming out of the golf palace of Oklahoma State in spring 2019, he became only the third man to win both the NCAA individual title and a tour event in the same year, the first two being Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods. He turned pro in June. He won an event July 7. He soared more.
In his first two major tournaments, both in 2020, he finished tied for fourth (PGA Championship) and second (U.S. Open). He thrived with both that and a birth date scandalously recent (April 14, 1999). His closing 75 at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot seemed normal. He had looks, charisma, everything.
He uses the word “dude” a lot, as happy people often do.
Then the game and the anxiety bit, which just goes to show the folly of envying people while never knowing what they’re enduring. He withdrew from two events this year after one opening-round 78 and one 83. He began Friday at the Masters with a quadruple-bogey 8, figured to miss the cut but didn’t — only because he was disqualified for signing a scorecard with a score lower than accurate.
Suddenly, when everybody gathered at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C., last month, this beacon of youth and talent was absent, taking a two-month breather during which he played golf but watched none. Now he’s in the pickle of so many humans, trying to figure out happiness.
“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,” he 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.’ ”
He began with no confidence, he said, “maybe just because I was so anxious or nervous or scared,” a possibility nobody would have pegged last fall but a reality Wolff’s openness might have illuminated still more, maybe even helping others in the process. He concluded his remarks with, “And I mean, kudos to pretty much every professional athlete out there — it’s, I haven’t been in this world for a long time, but it’s f---ing hard.”
He began by thinking, “Well, 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.” Then he went about the necessary art of golf, that of rapidly forgetting the misery. When he “missed like a one-footer on 16,” for one of his two double bogeys in a round with just five pars, he said it “probably shook me up a little bit,” but then he birdied five more holes thereafter. He even graced the top of the board at 3 under par before a double bogey on No. 7, the 16th hole he played.
“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.
He said: “More than the score 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 toward it.”
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