Matthew Wolff shot 65 at imperious Winged Foot on Saturday, and when Rory McIlroy heard Wolff had played the front nine in 30 — 30! — McIlroy said, “Wow,” and, “You can’t say anything but that’s just awesome golf.” Wolff’s score of 5 under par at his first U.S. Open left him two shots ahead of Bryson DeChambeau, who ebbed a bit on the front nine and flowed a bit on the back; four ahead of Louis Oosthuizen, who has routed one British Open at St. Andrews and played in one playoff at Augusta; five ahead of a compelling trio of Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele and Harris English; and six ahead of, yeah, McIlroy.
“I still don’t think that’s out of it by any stretch of the imagination,” McIlroy said of his position at 1 over on a course capable of extreme mischief.
“There’s no better place to be,” said 27-year-old major force DeChambeau — unless you count being 21 and being born in the preposterously recent 1999 and spending Saturday night leading the U.S. Open.
“I like to go out there and do what I feel comfortable with, rip dog and see how it goes from there,” Wolff said. “I feel comfortable with every part of my game, so I don’t like to shy away from things when I’m feeling confident, and I’m probably going to do the same tomorrow.”
If Wolff were to win the second major he ever tried, after he finished — good grief — tied for fourth with a closing 65 at last month’s PGA Championship, it would mean a pup from the west edge of Los Angeles had won a major one month after a pup from the north edge of Los Angeles won a major. That was Collin Morikawa, ancient but not decrepit at 23, who helmed a leader board chockablock with 20-something souls at the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
“It’s still an unbelievable thing that Collin did win the PGA,” Wolff said during the week, and while Wolff felt happy for Morikawa, he felt something else: “. . . But it gives me the confidence to know I can come out here and do the same thing.”
That’s some confidence, given a win would make him the seventh-youngest U.S. Open winner, with most of list claiming their Opens in the 1910s and 1920s, when evidently youth ran amok. It would tuck Wolff between Bobby Jones (21 years 4 months 12 days in 1923) and Walter Hagen (21 years 8 months in 1914) — not a bad statistical place to nestle. He can’t touch John McDermott — 19 years 9 months 14 days in 1911 — but he’ll manage.
He’s a charismatic guy who won an NCAA title at golf powerhouse Oklahoma State with his swing both deliciously original and hypnotically athletic, with its skyscraper backswing and its near-jump and its fine shimmy. It’s borrowed partly from the chunk of childhood he spent as a fine shortstop. Anybody who sticks with a swing like that in a world full of golf-swing snobs has to have some mustard to him, so it fits that Wolff got his first tour win, in his third tour try, in Minnesota in July 2019, with a 26-foot eagle putt that held off DeChambeau and Morikawa.
“He hits it really far,” Schauffele said. “He hits it really high. He’s not afraid. And, yeah, he doesn’t really care. I played with him in the final round of the PGA Championship, and he destroyed that place as well, and it was playing difficult there on the last day. Yeah, 5 under is really low.”
After all, four-time major winner McIlroy finished a few hours earlier and said, “Yeah, overall 68 out there is a really good score.”
Patrick Reed had begun Saturday with the lead, with DeChambeau nibbling behind, and to follow them through the front nine was to witness not so many balls upon fairways. Still, Reed held it together with characteristic wits and finished the front nine at 1 under for the day, 5 under for the tournament and still atop the leader board.
From there he had the kind of back nine even the tipsy people hollering from nearby backyards at the spectator-less event might appreciate. It went bogey, double bogey, par, bogey, bogey, bogey, par, bogey, bogey — for 8-over 43 and 7-over 77 all told.
Credit the 2018 Masters champion, now tied for 11th at 3 over, with fine deadpan humor for saying, “Well, I got all my bad shots out of the way.”
As he faded and DeChambeau kept grinding away until he birdied Nos. 16 and 17 to bob upward toward Wolff, Wolff went up there to reign over the afternoon. As he birdied Nos. 1, 4, 6, 7 and 9, his putts rolled in with a mighty confidence — from 14 feet, 15 feet, five feet, 12 feet and 36 feet to arrange a birdie from three feet. It started to seem that a victory for him might join some kind of logical progression, illogical as it might be.
“That’s a hard question,” he said. “I feel like I’m ready to go out there and win a major. I’ve already won a PGA Tour event, and I knew my game was in a really good spot. I’ve been feeling really good, really confident, and with my mind-set right now, how I’m thinking about the game is really good.”