For Matthew Wolff, trying to win the U.S. Open isn't his toughest challenge

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Matthew Wolff plays a shot from a bunker on the ninth hole during the third round.
Matthew Wolff plays a shot from a bunker on the ninth hole during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday. Wolff enters Sunday's final round in contention. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

With everyone around him chasing birdies, eagles, and at least pars, Matthew Wolff is most concerned about something more fundamental.

The pursuit of happiness.

Wolff, 22, has made that clear repeatedly this week at the U.S. Open, where he once again finds himself within striking range of victory. After his 73 on Saturday, he is two under par for the tournament and three shots behind the leaders. He’s in a three-way tie for sixth with Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler.

“Be happy, enjoy it, stay positive,” Wolff said of his attitude heading into the final round. “There was a lot of times that I could have got a little ahead of myself and got frustrated and stuff. There were times that I was frustrated today, but my caddie and I talked through it, and just really at the U.S. Open, more than any tournament, they don't crown a champion until the last putt drops on the 72nd hole.

“You've seen some crazy things happen over the years, and I'm in a good spot. My caddie told me, he goes, 'Two weeks ago, if I told you you were going to be three shots back at the U.S. Open on the final day, I don't know what I would have given for that, but it would be a lot.’ So I'm in a good spot here.”

But in a raw and revealing media session Friday, Wolff said he has struggled to find contentment both on and off the course. That led to him taking two months off recently, a surprising move for a player so young.

“Right now the absolute only thing that I'm focusing on is enjoying myself and being happy out there,” Wolff said. “It's probably not a coincidence that I'm playing well when I'm doing that, but that's the main focus this entire week and probably for a while.”

It was less than a year ago that the Westlake High graduate had the 54-hole lead by two strokes in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He collapsed Sunday, however, shooting a 75 and finishing second by six strokes to Bryson DeChambeau.

Matthew Wolff plays a shot on the 16th hole during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday.
Matthew Wolff plays a shot on the 16th hole during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Soon after, Wolff entered the roughest stretch of his young career. Since last fall, he has posted eight rounds of 76 or worse, withdrawn from two tournaments after one round, and was disqualified from the Masters for signing an incorrect scorecard. He hasn’t finished in the top 35 of a tournament since October, and he has dropped 20 spots in the world ranking to No. 32.

Asked whether the pressure is internal or external, he said: “I think it's everything combined. I think it's both the pressure of all the fans. Not that they're trying to put the pressure, but you want to perform for them. You want to go out there and play well and put on a show for them. You also have expectations for yourself and to play well. It's just hard to manage. It really is.”

He said a big part of his life is dedicated to managing fear — and sometimes irrational fear. Often it’s difficult for him to get out of bed, he said. Even this week.

“What's probably the worst thing that could happen? I could miss the cut?” said Wolff, who said he hasn’t sought professional help for his struggles but has gotten lots of support from his fellow PGA Tour players. “That's really the worst thing that could happen, but your brain makes you think that you hit a bad shot and like the world's over or you're going to physically get hurt or something. That was not my worry, but it's just hard.

Matthew Wolff reacts after missing a putt on the 18th green during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday.
Matthew Wolff reacts after missing a putt on the 18th green during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

“I'll admit, I mean, Thursday and even [Friday], even after playing well, I was still like I wanted to stay in bed. I wanted to be like where I was comfortable, not in the spotlight. It's awesome that I came out here and played well, but I think more importantly, I'm just getting closer to being more comfortable and being happy and enjoying it. I feel like I've done a very good job of enjoying it, but I've still got a long way to go to keep a level head.”

Wolff said he’s “very surprised” he’s playing so well in a tournament so packed with pressure.

“I know that I've played good golf in the past, but the low time that I had was pretty tough,” he said. “My confidence was shot. I'd say I came here with very, very — I'd say no expectations. I'd say my expectations coming here were to enjoy it and be happy, and I didn't even know if I was going to be able to do that. Thankfully, I am, as well as playing well.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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