After winning on PGA Tour at age 20, rising star flames out recently with WDs and a DQ that put American under microscope
Ever since Matthew Wolff entered professional golf’s airspace in the summer of 2019 at age 20, paying dues was not on his list of career goals. He reached the PGA Tour with unlimited confidence and fearlessness and announced he was ready to win the biggest championships the moment he set foot on property.
Wolff was the best-looking and the most charismatic of the Twenty-something Triumvirate, along with Oklahoma State teammate Viktor Hovland and the meteoric Collin Morikawa from the University of California.
They arrived on the PGA Tour at about the same time, and many thought that Wolff had the biggest upside, even though he was in possession of one of the strangest-looking swings that ever made it to the Tour.
Wolff won the 3M Open in his fourth start after turning pro, holing a long eagle putt on the 72nd hole to beat Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau by a shot. Wolff shot 65 in the final round to finish T-4 behind Morikawa at the PGA Championship. He held the 54-hole lead at the 2020 U.S. Open before finishing runner-up to DeChambeau.
Wolff became big and rich right out of the gate and appeared on the cover of both of the game’s biggest magazines, putting on display one of his most valuable possessions: his electric smile.
But for the moment, at least, Will Zalatoris has replaced Wolff as one of golf’s new, young “it” dudes, because they are on opposite trajectories. Zalatoris is a rocket, and Wolff is in a sudden, maddening descent, bursting into flames upon re-entry. And the fire that burns hottest often burns fastest.
Beginning in January, Wolff’s chart has pointed alarmingly downward. He withdrew from his second event of 2021, the Farmers Insurance Open, after a first-round 78. He cited an injury to his right hand after he was seen slamming a club on the ground more than once. At the WGC Workday Championship, which doesn’t have a 36-hole cut, a first-round 83 led to another WD. After initially not giving a reason, he finally settled on telling the Tour that it was a wrist problem.
At the Masters in April, he was disqualified after the second round after signing an incorrect scorecard, marking down a lower score than he actually made on the 17th hole. He was far from making the cut, anyway, with a 76 in the first round and what would have been a 79 on Friday.
He teamed with Collin Morikawa at the Zurich Classic last week, but they missed cut badly after a second-round 77 in the alternate shot. At the Zurich, Wolff couldn’t keep his ball on the planet, couldn’t find his backside with Google Maps and spent most of the 36 holes he played looking at his shoes. “I’ve seen it the last couple months,” Morikawa said. “He’s had his head down a lot.”
Probably hundreds of “injuries” over the years on Tour have been attached to withdrawals that follow poor play, so Wolff can’t be accused of doing anything other than following Tour tradition. But while one scorecard-induced WD can be excused, two is a pattern and two WDs and a DQ in a three-month period is a problem.
Fame can leave through the same door from which it came, and the public has a notoriously short attention span in the instantaneous social-media era. Was it too easy for Wolff? Did success come too soon? Have the magazine covers been a curse?
Some will point to Wolff’s swing as perhaps the culprit. His teacher is the equally-hyped George Gankas, a Los Angeles instructor who refused to touch Wolff’s motion, even the curious dance move with his knees that starts the complicated movement.
However, every swing, even the most orthodox and classical, can get sideways, and the great players save rounds with superior short games. But Wolff didn’t come equipped with Tour-caliber scrambling. In fact, he’s 212th on Tour in scrambling this season and 202nd in strokes gained around the green. That will turn a 74 into an 80 instead of a 70.
And apparently, Wolff is unaccustomed to long-term failure. He ought to have a conversation with Justin Rose.
“He’s very happy when he’s doing really well and smiling and having a good time,” Wolff’s mother, Shari, told GolfChannel.com. “But if the tables turn, his whole attitude turns, and his whole game tanks with it.”
But professional golf is mostly a solitary pursuit, and when it goes badly, a player can be even more isolated because people can be afraid that 77s might be contagious. One of the requirements for playing the PGA Tour is an unequivocal love of the lifestyle: airplanes, rental cars, hotels, room service.
Away from the course, Wolff bought a house in Jupiter, Fla., where a number of top players call home. But he has felt uncomfortable there, and he bought another house near Stillwater, Okla., and Oklahoma State, where he has more friends.
“It’s a different world to travel on your own,” Morikawa told Golf Digest. “Yeah, you have an agent, but you’re out there by yourself in a hotel room. You can’t prep for that. There’s a certain age where some people are more mature than others.”
Failure before success is a tried-and-true formula; many have followed it to stardom. But Wolff is experiencing the opposite, at age 22, and it’s bound to be confusing and bewildering. Being forced to grow up under the magnifying glass wasn’t part of the plan, either.
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