SAN DIEGO -- Matthew Wolff didn't seem too upset that he had eight birdies but shot only 1-under 70 in Thursday's opening round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
He wasn't beating himself up for hitting only six of 14 fairways, carding two double-bogeys and needing 31 putts, including three three-putts, to finish his round. The only thing that mattered to Wolff was that, for the first time in a long time, he walked off the golf course with a smile on his face.
In his first start in nearly two months, Wolff had a roller coaster of a round on the South Course but was nonetheless happy with the results. It was exactly what he expected after taking time away to focus on his mental health.
"Regardless of how today went, I had a good time out there and that hasn't happened in a long time," said Wolff, who finished the day tied for 11th
Just eight months ago, Wolff shot a 5-under 65, the lowest ever in a major at Winged Foot, to grab the 54-hole lead in the pandemic-delayed U.S. Open. At 21 years old, he was attempting to become the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923 and the first player to win the major in his debut since Francis Ouimet in 1913.
Bryson DeChambeau chased Wolff down and won at Winged Foot by 6 shots. Wolff finished in second and then tied for second in his next start at the Shriners Hospital for Children Open. Wolff looked to be one of golf's next can't-miss stars and was ranked No. 12 in the world.
Then, somehow, the wheels fell off.
Wolff missed the cut at the Masters in November and tied for 40th at the American Express. He withdrew after an opening-round 78 at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January and again after an 83 at the WGC-Workday Championship at the Concession in February. Wolff said he hit rock bottom at the Masters in April, when he was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard after rounds of 76 and 79.
"At the Masters, I think that was pretty much the turning point," said Wolff, who turned 22 in April. "The entire time my head was down and I hated it. I mean, I didn't love being out there and like I didn't enjoy it and it was hard for me. I want to try to be strong for all the fans, but I guess I just am not that strong yet. But I'm trying my hardest and I'm getting there."
After he and teammate Collin Morikawa missed the cut at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans in late April, Wolff decided to take a much-needed break.
"I think I just put too much pressure on myself," he said. "And it was a hard decision because I'm so new on the tour and it's my first or second year and I didn't want to walk away, I didn't even think I could, to be honest. And then when I finally started to get to a bad enough spot, honestly, I was like, 'You know what, I need some time.'"
Wolff even pulled out of the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May.
It was a stunning development for a player who became only the seventh tour player to win in his fourth career start or earlier after sinking a 26-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the 3M Open in July 2019. Earlier that summer, while playing at Oklahoma State, he won an individual NCAA championship. Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods are the only other players to win on tour and win an individual NCAA championship in the same year.
Wolff, from Agoura Hills, California, is among the tour's most popular players because of his unorthodox swing, which includes a demonstrative pre-shot left leg wiggle. He is one of the sport's longest hitters and is well-liked by other players.
"So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade [with] 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."
Wolff said he didn't watch any golf while he was away from the tour and didn't play until about six weeks ago.
"I think the hardest part is people, fans and stuff or anyone, unless you're actually a professional athlete or playing a sport, you just don't know the emotions that come along with it and how much you want to please everyone and play for your fans and on top of that make money," Wolff said. "Like it's a living. In college golf, if you shot 78, you go back and your coach would pay for your food and you would be chilling, because you were on a full-ride scholarship or whatever, you know what I mean? But you come out here, you miss five cuts in a row and you're like, 'Damn, I haven't made a paycheck.' And it's just a lot and it's really hard."
Wolff said he leaned on his family, girlfriend and team members to help him clear his head. He also talked this week with fellow tour player Bubba Watson, who has been outspoken about mental health. That Wolff chose to return to the U.S. Open, which is traditionally one of the sport's most difficult setups, was somewhat of a surprise.
"I just felt like this was a good time to be back," he said. "This course sets up really good for me, and I think the U.S. Open is the hardest test in golf. I feel like I hit the ball pretty far and I can get it out of thick rough. And I feel like there's a lot of people that get to this event and they already feel like they're starting from a disadvantage and I don't feel that way."
Wolff admitted he had nerves standing over his first tee shot on the No. 10 hole on Thursday morning. He pushed his 295-yard drive about 30 yards to the right. He recovered to make the first of his eight birdies, which are tied for the most in an opening round at the U.S. Open in the last 15 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Regardless of what happens in the second round, Wolff knows he took a big step forward.
"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," Wolff said. "But I kind of told myself, '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 want to be happy, man, that's pretty much all it is."