The howls rang out down an empty 11th fairway, piercing through the eerie quiet of Winged Foot Golf Club. From a porch, along the 11th tee box, the few bystanders able to witness Matthew Wolff’s blistering ascent could sense something special was afoot. So as Wolff let his tee shot rip, they let loose a primal roar, as if to announce the arrival of golf’s latest young phenom for all who could hear.
The hallowed West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y., with its ankle-thick rough and devilish greens, had spent the previous two rounds of this U.S. Open swallowing many of the world’s finest golfers whole. Justin Thomas, the leader after one round, stumbled out of the gate Saturday with three bogeys, having already finished Friday with four bogeys in his final six holes. Patrick Reed, the leader after 36, soon followed suit, shooting eight over par on the back nine.
But as others faltered, the 21-year-old from Simi Valley, with his unorthodox swing and meager experience on the PGA Tour, confidently climbed the leaderboard, bending golf’s most fearsome course to his will. Wolff, who has one tour win on his resume, continued climbing Saturday even as he failed to hit 12 of 14 fairways, an unthinkable total no leader at Winged Foot has ever managed to survive.
He managed to recover nonetheless, his confidence never waning as he scrambled his way to a two-shot lead ahead of Sunday’s final round. While Wolff continually missed fairways, he needed only 10 putts over the first nine holes, five of which he birdied, in one of the finest front-nine performances Winged Foot has ever seen.
All the while, the reigning NCAA individual champion from 2019 has appeared thoroughly unfazed, turning in a third-round 65 that tied Thomas for the best in history at Winged Foot. More importantly, the extraordinary performance in his second major puts the Westlake High alum in prime position to become the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters.
“I'm a huge confidence player,” said Wolff, who is at five-under 205. “When I'm hitting it good, when I'm putting good, when I'm playing good, I really feel like I can carry that on and carry the momentum a lot easier. … Right now I feel very confident with every single part of my game.”
The final round of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot is littered with 54-hole leaders who fell precipitously from their perch. None have ever shot better than 74 in the final round, while only one winner of five managed to finish the tournament below par.
As for winning in your first Open appearance? That hasn’t been done since Francis Ouimet … in 1913.
“I’m probably going to be a little antsy,” Wolff said. “It’s the U.S. Open and I have a lead. I’m going to try to keep my nerves as calm as they can be. I put myself in a really good spot.”
Wolff isn’t the only rising star who finds himself in an ideal place for his first major. Bryson DeChambeau, a 27-year-old bazooka among golf's young guns, lingers two shots behind, raring to blast his way to a narrative-defining victory, one that might finally justify his style of unapologetic, protein-packed power, which some in the sport still see only as novelty.
“It's definitely validating, albeit there's a lot more to go,” said DeChambeau, a Clovis native, who sits at three under after a third-round 70. "I've got to figure out a lot more. I am excited to be in this position for sure. There's no better place to be.”
Like Wolff, DeChambeau fired to the front of the pack despite barely finding the fairway, hitting only three Saturday.
Wolff and DeChambeau both balked this week when asked if they might adjust their approaches for Winged Foot, and who could blame them for continuing to pave their own paths? DeChambeau has been a revelation since golf’s restart, while Wolff has followed the natural progression of a rising star, moving from national champion to tour winner last summer to a Sunday lead at the U.S. Open.
Only Woods and Ben Crenshaw have ever pulled off all three so quickly.
“I feel like I'm ready to win out here and win a major,” Wolff said. “Yes, it is really early in my career, but I feel like I have the game to win. Collin [Morikawa] won [the PGA Championship this year] at 23. I'm 21, and I'm not saying that it's going to happen, but, I mean, I put myself in a really good spot.”
Perhaps then, by Sunday’s end, it’ll be his turn to howl.
Kartje reported from Los Angeles.