Matthew Wolff’s golf game had fallen into such disrepair that when he played his home course in Oklahoma four days ago in preparation for this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, the former Division I prodigy lost every ball in his bag.
Head space modification, more than any on-course adjustment, has helped Wolff avoid his previous tendency to chase perfection on every swing and instead embrace being good enough, which he was and then some during a 5-under-par 65 in the opening round at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm. He was two shots behind first-round leader Jason Day and one back of Joel Dahmen, whose 64 had him alone in second. Wolff was joined by four others in third.
“I really didn’t come here expecting to play well,” Wolff said. “Like I said, I was just trying to work on my attitude and have a good time. I had a really good time out there.”
Montgomery County native and Georgetown Prep graduate Denny McCarthy was one of those who matched Wolff on the first day of the first PGA Tour event in the District suburbs since 2018, after the Tiger Woods-hosted National left because a title sponsor could not be secured.
Four-time major champion and world No. 7 Rory McIlroy was four shots off the lead, carding seven birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey. The highest-ranked player in the field of 156 is a three-time Wells Fargo champion and claimed the event last year when it was held at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.
“I was happy with a 67,” McIlroy said after playing his first competitive round at TPC Potomac. “It could have been a 65 or a 64, but it’s still a good score.”
Like McIlroy, whose last professional appearance in the D.C. market came in a runaway triumph at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, Wolff came into the first round mostly unfamiliar with the layout, having played only the front nine for the first time during Wednesday’s pro-am.
Despite blindly going into the back nine, Wolff made four birdies over the first six holes after the turn. The barrage began at No 11, a par 4 covering 458 yards. Wolff hit his drive into the right primary rough but landed his approach from 155 yards inside of four feet and sank the putt.
He then carded three consecutive birdies beginning at the par-4, 360-yard 13th, where Wolff stiffed his approach within two feet. He birdied No. 14 with an 11-foot putt and the 15th with another crisp stroke inside of 13 feet.
The showing comes in his first tournament since he missed the cut at the Masters, his fourth missed cut in six starts this year, when he unraveled in a spectacle that pushed him to take full account of his rage. In this case, it manifested itself when Wolff snapped a club during a dreadful stretch in the first round at Augusta National.
Earlier this year, Wolff tossed a club into the water at the 18th hole at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on the way to missing another cut.
“I wish I could go back and reverse it,” Wolff said. “And I feel terrible. I never want to affect anyone else. I was obviously affecting myself. Just the fact that I knew that I had my shoulders down or anything when I was struggling, it’s hard to play good when you’re playing with someone like that. I’m just trying to be better for [fellow players] and for myself.”
Wolff burst onto the professional golf scene three years ago after a decorated career at Oklahoma State, where he was a first-team all-American as a freshman. That season he also made the decisive putt to secure the NCAA title for the Cowboys.
As a sophomore in 2019, Wolff ascended to No. 1 in the Division I rankings, and after turning professional, he won on the PGA Tour in just the fourth start of his career, firing a 10-under 274 at the 3M Open outside of Minneapolis.
Wolff, now 23, followed with four top fours, including a second place at the 2020 U.S. Open, before he began a downward spiral early last year, which he attributes in part to constant comparisons to two other players who also turned professional in 2019, Collin Morikawa, 25, and Viktor Hovland, 24.
Morikawa, ranked third in the world, has won two majors (the 2020 PGA Championship and 2021 British Open). Hovland, No. 6 in the world, has six professional victories and reached as high as third in the rankings. Neither player is in the field at the Wells Fargo Championship.
“It’s more just defining my own success,” Wolff said. “Coming out with Viktor and Collin — they’re really good friends of mine, and I think all the success they’ve had has been great, and I’m very happy for them — but getting put in that group and everyone taking about what I can do with the golf ball and all my skills, I just felt like there was so much pressure and so much expectation around me that it was just really hard to live up to.”
Wolff fell out of a tie for the lead when Day overtook him on the back nine in the early evening. The 2015 PGA Championship winner had five birdies coming home highlighted by three in a row from Nos. 14 through 16.
Dahmen briefly held the solo lead with a 29 on the front but made a bogey at No. 11 before getting a stroke back with a birdie at the par-3 17th.