Mental health, not score, defines success for Matt Wolff

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SAN DIEGO – In many ways, Matthew Wolff’s first round of the US Open reflected his brief but turbulent career.

He started strong – 3 under par on four holes and leading – just like he did on the PGA Tour, winning only his third start. Then came the tough luge, a bogey-double bogey-bogey race that rocked him, much like the last eight months with the WDs, a DQ at the Masters, no appearances at the Players and PGA Championship and a two-month hiatus at the middle of the year. season.

One can only hope that Wolff’s closing effort – four birdies that put him on the positive side of the ledger with a below par 70 – suggests his future trajectory.

“A lot of good, a lot of bad,” he said afterwards, a verdict as applicable to his year as to his time. “I fell back a bit and things weren’t always going well, but I’m still having fun, I’m having fun and I’m happy and in my opinion right now that’s kind of what I’m working on and the most important thing for me no matter how it goes there.

Wolff’s comments after his turn were more compelling and more important than any of the events recorded on the scoreboard here at Torrey Pines on Thursday. A popular and likeable young man opened a vein on the pressure that drove him to walk away from the PGA Tour, the crushing weight of expectations placed on young shoulders, the disorienting effect of always trying to please someone else.

He explained his recent absence with unfailing honesty.

“I didn’t want to go away. … Then when I finally started to get into a pretty bad situation, honestly I was like, you know what, I need some time, ”he said. “The most important thing right now that I’m trying to do is have fun again and really take care of myself. I mean, I love these fans and I want to play well for them, but right now I’m really trying to be happy and like I said I’m living a great life and I want to enjoy it.

Wolff has many attributes that superficial cynics might point to as evidence that he doesn’t have much to complain about. There are the $ 5.7 million in career earnings at age 22, the PGA Tour victory, the beauty of the movie star, the sublime talent. There is always an antipodes side.

Twenty-two is awfully young to have every working day judged success or failure based on a number on a map, awfully young to realize that there is nowhere where to hide and no way to bluff, terribly young to adjust to the fact that others are being paid to judge you, terribly young to understand that a good day today only increases expectations for tomorrow. Life on the PGA Tour is a lonely existence, even for the popular and upbeat guys. Relationships are harder to maintain and faster to break. And when a man focuses on that “total” box of the dashboard, his life can become more of that sum than of its parts.

Naomi Osaka is a year older than Wolff. Last month, she walked away from a shot at her fifth Grand Slam title, retiring from Roland Garros due to mental health issues. She will also jump Wimbledon later this month. His example of prioritizing mental health, of finding one’s own balance, did not go unnoticed by Wolff.

“I live an incredible life. So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade me in the blink of an eye, ”he said. “I needed to kind of come back and say, ‘Dude, you’re living an amazing life. You don’t always have to play well. I know I want to, I still want to play well, I still want to please the fans, but I kind of realized I just need to have fun and be happy.

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Perspective is a hard-won thing at 22. Wolff gives the impression of a young man determined to stabilize his ship, who understands that what others expect of him doesn’t have to determine what he expects of himself, and that he doesn’t have to do it alone, in silence.

Big Championship Thursdays are often focused on wellness stories, usually unfamiliar companions with the glamorous end of a leaderboard enjoying a moment. There is a fleetingness to these stories though, as if we implicitly know that what we applaud after the first round will not be there after the last round. Wolff’s 70 was the kind of roller coaster (only five pars) that didn’t lend itself to success at a US Open, but it got here without any expectations. In fact, he deliberately picked the toughest championship of all for his comeback.

“I guess if I shoot 78 there will be a lot of people doing that too, so it won’t stand out as much,” he said with a wry laugh.

His turn of 70 was encouraging, but Wolff knows this week’s success is measured by something more indelible than pencil stripes on a scorecard.

“I worked really hard to stay in the open space and focus on shooting in front of you and not shooting behind you. I’m probably going to struggle with that and learn to handle bad shots for the rest of my career, ”he said. “But I’m young and I’m learning and just trying to enjoy it.”

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