SAN DIEGO — Matthew Wolff stepped onto the 4th hole at Torrey Pines on Wednesday, stuck a tee in the ground, waggled his trademark waggle, felt the left-to-right wind off the Pacific, took the club back high and outside, dropped it in the slot and torpedoed his TaylorMade into the San Diego sky, the ball soaring down the right-center of the fairway.
He grinned. Fist-bumped. Sheathed his driver. Then he sidled over to chat, ready to answer the question that’s been on every golf fan’s mind.
How are you, Matt?
He paused. Took a deep breath. Considered.
The last time a U.S. Open was contested, Wolff looked like a world-beater. On Sunday at Winged Foot last September, he held the 54-hole lead and walked to the 1st tee chatting on his phone, oozing carefree jock swagger. And even though he didn’t close that day — he finished second, behind Bryson DeChambeau — all signs indicated that he’d officially arrived. A few weeks before, he’d finished T4 at the PGA Championship. A week later, he finished T2 at the Shriners. He skyrocketed to No. 12 in the world. Top pros were gushing about his game. “We all know how talented Matt is,” Rory McIlroy said. Everyone believed in Matthew Wolff.
Except Matthew Wolff.
“I tried so hard to be perfect,” he said on Wednesday, nine months later, on the eve of another U.S. Open. “A lot of guys 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 root for me. Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure, and I think it got a little intense. It got too much.”
George Gankas, his longtime coach and confidante, strolled alongside Wolff all afternoon, dialing in the turn in his backswing and keeping the mood light in between.
“How’s Matty Wolff doing?” He gestured as Wolff nipped a bunker shot to kick-in range and tossed his wedge to his caddie, Nick. “Right now — at this point, right now? He’s pretty f—- good. He’s loose.”
Wolff hasn’t played competitive golf in two months. The last time he teed it up, he signed for the wrong score at the Masters and got DQ’d. That came after an 83-WD at the WGC-Concession and a 78-WD at the Farmers Insurance Open. Since that runner-up finish in Las Vegas in October, Wolff has played 10 tournaments without cracking the top 25. Over time, the frustrations compounded. His patience wore thin. It didn’t take a body language expert to see that Wolff was off his game.
“One bad shot, he gets down,” Gankas said. “That’s what he’s working on: taking things a little bit more lightly. He’s looking for that happy place, if that makes sense. He’s working on being good to himself.”
“It’s a great life I live, and I know that,” Wolff added, aware not everyone feels natural empathy towards the young and wealthy. “But I think there are a lot of things people don’t know about being a pro golfer, or a pro athlete in general. There’s been a lot of talk about mental health in the sports world recently. And I don’t put myself in the spotlight; I’m not one to speak out on topics or anything. I just think that it’s important to take care of yourself and make sure that you’re happy. I’ve been trying to work on that.”
When Wolff is on, he’s all the way on. At a GOLF Magazine photoshoot in the fall, he was on. He was enthusiastic, animated, the life of the party. It’s not common for the subject of a cover shoot to check in on the photographer’s assistant, but Wolff did. (“How are you doing? You need anything? Lemme get you a water, hang on. I’ll grab a water.”) He has a way of making the people around him feel special.
He has a harder time doing the same for himself. His profession requires the pursuit of perfection, but it also requires that the pursuer recognizes his goal is unattainable. That’s where Wolff struggles.
“Golf can be f— brutal,” he said succinctly.
Wolff skipped the PGA Championship. He skipped the Memorial. He needed a break. Instead he’s spent the past couple months spending time with family and friends, recharging his batteries. He’d bought a house in Jupiter that was intended to be his training grounds, but he hasn’t been there in months. Oklahoma, where he went to school, feels far more like home.
But now he’s back. Wolff’s peers are happy to see him, too. Xander Schauffele came in for a hug on the range. Sam Burns crossed a fairway to say hello. Bubba Watson, who has been open about his own ups and downs with mental health, spoke at length with Wolff on the range.
“People have been super nice,” Wolff said. “You remember that everyone goes through stuff.”
Thursday, he’ll be in the bright lights again, once more unto the breach, taking on competitive golf on a grand stage, keeping stroke-play score for 72 holes. Oddsmakers don’t think much of his chances — he’s going off at 200-1 or longer on some books — but that’s the way he prefers it.
“I love flying under the radar,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
“He’s not a favorite to make the cut,” Gankas added, unprompted. Does Wolff know that? Gankas gave a sly smile. “I made him aware of it. He likes it when people doubt him. The more doubt we can get from other people, the better it’ll be for him.”
It’s a complex equation, happiness.
There is, of course, a chance Wolff makes those books look silly. He’s built for a course like this one, with long rough and room to operate. As he hit drivers on the range, he worked his swing speed into the high 120s, his ball speed nearing 190. Bomber numbers. The ball jumps off his clubface.
“The rough doesn’t affect him in any way at all. It’s weird,” Gankas said. “At Winged Foot, guys were flubbing it out of the rough. He was taking 8-irons, 6-irons, hitting it on the green like it was nothing.”
There’s a certain added challenge to return to the Tour for golf’s most punishing test of the year. But Wolff insists he’s excited to be back. He’s been following the game, even in his absence, and talking to him you’re constantly reminded that he’s an excitable 22-year-old.
“I’m excited to watch that dude Wilco [Nienaber] bomb it,” Wolff says. “He could be longest on Tour!”
That’s part of this week’s focus: Enjoying himself.
“I’m not here to ‘bounce back,’” he said. “There are goals I have in my mind this week that are a little different from goals I had previously.”
The way Wolff speaks, it’s clear that he’s trying to convince himself. He wants those goals to be his goals, so he’ll speak them into existence, even if that doesn’t come naturally.
“I know I get really hard on myself. I know I do. But I’ve starting to realize that’s not fair to me, either,” he said. “I’m trying to start enjoying myself a little more.”