SAN DIEGO (AP) — The opening tee shot was frightening, and the three straight three-putts maddening. Matthew Wolff had no idea how things would play out Thursday in a roller coaster of a round at Torrey Pines, but he was pretty sure of one thing.
He was going to finish with a smile on his face. Because 18 holes into the U.S. Open, Wolff was already feeling like a winner.
“No matter what happened today — the score that I shot — I just have been having fun,” the former Oklahoma State star said, pausing before adding: ``And I haven’t had fun out here in quite a while.”
So little fun that Wolff was questioning his career before it even had a chance to really take off. So little fun — including a disqualification at the Masters — that he walked away from golf for two months to try and get his head together.
Wolff wants to win the Open, yes, just like any player in the field. But what he wants most is to simply be happy — a word he repeated over and over again as he spoke candidly about the pressures of being on the big stage at the age of 22.
Playing golf for a living isn’t nearly as easy as it looks, even for one of the top young talents in the game.
“Unless you’re actually a professional athlete or playing a sport, you just don’t know the emotions that come along with it,” he said. “It’s just a lot. And it’s really hard.”
The story of Wolff’s day was a lot like the story of his young career. A lot of highs, a bunch of lows, and at the end some light shining in what had become an increasingly dark place for the phenom who just eight months ago seemed destined to win the Open at Winged Foot before faltering in the final round.
He came here with no expectations — but brought along a lot of hope. Not just hope that he would play well, but hope that he would handle things better no matter what the score.
Most of all, though, he just hoped he would be happy.
“I think the biggest thing right now that I’m trying to do is enjoy myself again and just take care of myself,” he said. “I mean, I love these fans and I want to play well for them, but right now I’m just really trying to be happy.’’
Wolff did himself no favors by plunging back into competition at a tournament that is often the hardest test in golf. He admitted to being nervous standing on his first tee and could have easily folded early after blocking his opening tee shot some 40 yards right of the fairway.
But he made a couple of quick birdies to move to the top of the early leaderboard. And he kept making birdies — eight of them in all — to offset some of the trouble he had with his putter midway through the round on his way to a 1-under 70 that left him just three shots back.
“Coming off 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, I’m like, Dude, I’ve been making progress on enjoying myself and lightening up a little bit and accepting the bad shots because everyone hits them.’’
Wolff said he spent his two-month break focused on his mental health, not his golf. He took heart when he heard other athletes — including tennis player Naomi Osaka — talk about having similar issues.
He knows he’s fortunate to play golf for a living. But he also knows he needs to be right mentally to succeed in his chosen career over a long period of time.
“It’s just so important to be happy and I live an amazing life,’’ he said. ``So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade (places with) me in a heartbeat. And I needed to just kind of get back and be like, Dude, you live an unbelievable life.’’
That life might be even more unbelievable if the big hitter with the unorthodox swing was to somehow win the Open in his return to play. Actually, just getting to play on the weekend would in his mind be enough to validate his choice of a path forward.
Like golf itself, Wolff's goal is both complicated — and extremely simple.
“I just want to be happy, man,” he said. ``That’s pretty much all it is.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg