- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
The U.S. Open did what it often does, bruising and battering the best golfers in the world, sometimes making them look silly, but also highlighting just how good they really are when you consider the immense obstacles in the path at America’s national championship.
That might have been of little consolation to Matthew Wolff early Sunday evening after finishing second to Bryson DeChambeau at Winged Foot, although the long-hitting Wolff quickly put things in perspective after signing his scorecard.
“A bunch of positives, I think,” said Wolff, who shot rounds of 66-74-65-75. “You can’t take Bryson out because obviously he won, but shooting even par for four rounds at Winged Foot is pretty exceptional.
“I played really tough all week. I battled hard. Things just didn’t go my way. But first U.S. Open, second place is something to be proud of and hold your head high for. I’m just excited to learn from this experience, and it’s definitely not the last time that I’m going to be in this spot.”
That is the perfect way for Wolff to view the situation, because it was a struggle almost from the start, a day that saw him make an eagle but no birdies while adding five bogeys and a double bogey.
He shot 75 after taking a two-shot lead into the final round — and lost by six.
Of course, DeChambeau became the first player in 65 years to win a major while being the only player to shoot under par in the final round. And when Jack Fleck did that in 1955 at the Olympic Club, he needed an 18-hole playoff to defeat Ben Hogan and win the U.S. Open.
The Sunday struggles are the kind of stuff that might often send a golfer into a funk, causing him to wonder what went wrong and make him the subject to conjecture about just how difficult it might be to recover from such a collapse.
But for Wolff, there should be no such fears. In this case, especially, there is no shame in finishing second. Not when you completed 72 holes in even par on a golf course where many expected the winning score to be over par. And not when DeChambeau did otherworldly things and was the only player the field Sunday to break par.
Keep in mind, Wolff, 21, was playing in just his second major championship. Only 15 months ago, he was winning the NCAA individual title for Oklahoma State and only soon after turned pro. It was his first U.S. Open; you have to go back to Francis Ouimet in 1913 to find the last time a player won the championship in his first attempt.
The 65 he shot in Saturday’s third round, hitting just two fairways, was certainly impressive. And given how he has played in these big tournaments — he finished tied for fourth at the PGA Championship last month in his first major attempt — the idea of prevailing was certainly within reason.
“I feel like I’m ready to win out here and win a major,” he said on Saturday.
Fear is not part of the arsenal in today’s young players. Confidence is their forte, and like fellow newcomers Collin Morikawa — who won the PGA — and Viktor Hovland, the idea of contending often and winning often was hardly out of the question.
Still, it was a big ask to capture a U.S. Open in the first attempt. Or to become the youngest major champion since Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters, the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923.
“The U.S. Open is a whole different story,” Wolff said. “I think the firmness of the greens and the rough length and just the course in general. … Winged Foot is an unbelievable test and an unbelievable golf course, but it was miles, miles harder than Harding Park (site of last month’s PGA), and it definitely showed, no only today but throughout the week.
“Even when the weather was good, the scores were still high. I think the biggest thing I’m going to take from it is just I have to stay really patient because there’s a lot of times out there that I kind of hung my head, and that could have been the difference between two, three shots.”
And to do it at a brutal Winged Foot test where the scoring average on Sunday was 74.9 and pressures of a major awaited … well, that would be no easy task.
As Jason Day said afterward when asked about the course’s toughest stretch: “Walking to the first tee. You have to play the 18 holes.”
Wolff found that out Sunday. He bogeyed three of the first eight holes. An eagle at the ninth — after DeChambau had done likewise — kept him in the game heading to the final nine holes.
But a bogey at the 10th ended all momentum, and DeChambeau never wavered, increasing his lead as Wolff could not mount any pressure.
“I don’t think it was nerves that were holding me back,” he said. “I just think it wasn’t meant to be. It’s the U.S. Open. There’s a lot of breaks out there that probably could have — a foot or a couple inches more, and I have a different lie, or it stays up on a ridge or things like that, are three, four shots. If I’m that much closer to Bryson coming down the stretch, I’m sure he feels a little bit more pressure.
“He played really well. To watch it first hand, I have to agree.”
Wolff played pretty well, too. He has a victory at the 3M Championship last year. He tied for fourth at the PGA and now was second at the U.S. Open. That means just four players have been over the two major championships he has played.
Next up is the Masters and Augusta National, where Wolff’s game should be perfectly suited. First-timers there typically have their issues, but who knows? Wolff seems to be adjusting to these major venues just fine, even if Sunday did not turn out the way he had hoped.
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