9:08 PM ET
- Senior editor for college basketball
- Joined ESPN in 2008
- Graduate of the University of Maryland
MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Matthew Wolff would rather it not be this way. He’d prefer to walk to the first tee Sunday afternoon surrounded by thousands at Winged Foot, rows of fans following each move, the noise echoing for a rare birdie, the collective groan when a wayward tee shot finds the bottom of the rough.
Those chasing him would rather it be that way too. They’d rather a 21-year-old, in just his second major championship, feel all the pressure that comes with a major championship, all the weight and angst and nerves weighing on him from the moment he walks on the property for the final round of the U.S. Open, in arguably the most demanding test in golf. They want what is already hard to be harder still.
“You know, I’m not in his head so I don’t know what’s going on, but I would imagine if you had two options, I’m sure, knowing Matt, he’d want to play in front of fans,” said Xander Schauffele, who is tied for fourth and will start Sunday 5 shots behind Wolff. “He is that type of player. But I would have to think the polls would push towards it would be easier without fans.”
A month ago, 23-year-old Collin Morikawa, in just his second major, won the PGA Championship. Now, Wolff, as talented but even younger, tries to follow suit. And those in pursuit can’t help but wonder the same thing: Is it easier for these kids to win a big one with no one around?
“It just makes it a little different and maybe a touch easier,” Rory McIlroy said.
Wolff will have the burden of history following him on each shot; he is trying to become the first player in more than 100 years to win the U.S. Open the very first time he has competed in the event. He will have to try to navigate Winged Foot once more, avoiding the big numbers lurking off every tee, hiding near every green. In the five previous times this event has been held at Winged Foot, no player who has held at least a share of the lead after 54 holes has posted a number better than 74 in the final round.
Wolff will have to fend off a field with recognizable names. Bryson DeChambeau is just 2 shots back and will be playing right alongside him on Sunday. Major champions such as McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen and Zach Johnson remain in striking distance, as do other players with impressive résumés, including Schauffele and Hideki Matsuyama.
“You know, I’m going to try to keep my nerves as calm as they can be,” Wolff said. “I put myself in a really good spot. I did everything that I could do up until this point, and [Sunday] I’m going to go out there, I promise you I’m going to try my best, and if I come out on top or not, it is what it is.”
Wolff, though, will do all this without the usual major championship swirl, instead being able to operate in the same silence Morikawa experienced at TPC Harding Park in August.
“It’s just everything is exaggerated with people,” Schauffele said. “People yelling, there’s more noise, there’s more things. You have to try and focus more. Right now, it’s so quiet, it’s eerie, it’s weird. It’s not like anything anyone has experienced. It’s one variable that you just don’t have to deal with, where — is that a loss of an advantage to you who’s accustomed to being in that environment.
“It’s sort of like a college tournament, almost, where you’re doing your own thing.”
Wolff can check the electronic leaderboards scattered around Winged Foot. He can see if McIlroy is making a move. He will not, however, have to contend with hearing McIlroy coming. There won’t be the roars, the shouts of a big name when he has done something big.
“No, it didn’t feel anything remotely close to a major [at the PGA Championship],” Justin Thomas said earlier this week. “It is a shame because [TPC Harding Park] and [Winged Foot] are just two terrific major championship venues, especially here in New York with the very passionate fans that they have here. To not be able to experience that takes away a lot of a championship, let alone a U.S. Open. Especially coming down the last nine, and on Sunday, it’s going to, I think, have a big impact. I know I miss them, and I wish they could have been out here. But yeah, it’s night-and-day different.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered to Wolff; after all, he has seemed unfazed over three days at one of the world’s most difficult golf courses. He has posted two impressive rounds: He opened with 66, then posted a dazzling 65 on Saturday, a score two shots better than that of anyone else in the third round. Even his off day was solid; he salvaged a 74 in Friday’s second round in ruthless conditions, a day in which the scoring average was 75.25.
“I have yet to play in a major with fans, so I’m really excited for the first time that happens, but I think I do feed off of fans,” Wolff said. “Behind [No.] 10 green and 11 tee box there are fans in their houses; they were howling for me, and I love seeing people out here, but it is a different atmosphere.
“I think coming down the stretch it maybe makes me a little more calm just to see less people. Once I’m out on the course, I’m kind of focused and doing my thing.”
His demeanor has not changed. He has smiled his way around Winged Foot. Wolff went out of his way after his Saturday round to hand a golf ball to a volunteer following his group, thanking the man for his effort. He spoke of perspective, pointing out that his agent is dealing with stomach cancer.
“It’s going to be awesome when fans are back, but right now, it is what it is,” Wolff said.