MAMARONECK, NY – In May, when most global sports leagues were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, veteran golfers Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler did participate in a charity contest made for TV. Almost like a lark, or perhaps to lure a younger crowd, Matthew Wolff, a 21-year-old PGA Tour newcomer, was also invited to play.
At the time, Wolff was best known for his peculiarity at the start, his wayward swing and his long rides, and he clearly seemed nervous at the start as he shot shots all over the track. But his presence was charming, like an overprotective little brother who nevertheless puts everyone at ease. At one point, McIlroy, 31, shamefully referred to Wolff as & # 39; younger & # 39 ;.
After Saturday's third round of the 2020 United States Open, in which Wolff shot a five-under-par 65 to get a two-stroke lead en route to the final day of the championship, McIlroy chose other words in describing from his friend.
"That's just great golf," McIlroy said of Wolff's dynamic game Saturday afternoon. "I mean, everyone knows how talented Matt is."
With his round in blustery conditions at the daunting Winged Foot Golf Club, which brought him down to fifth before the tournament, Wolff rose in the rankings one day. when many of the game's best players struggled with unpredictable winds, deep rough and fast greens. Wolff will be paired on Sunday with another long-hitting personality of this golf season, Bryson DeChambeau, who shot a 70 and finished on Saturday at three under par.
Turns out to be an enticing matchup and a show of new – era power, although a mix of seasoned and younger players is not far behind. Former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen is only in third place by one undersized, and Xander Schauffele, Harris English and Hideki Matsuyama are tied, one shot ahead of McIlroy.
Although, as Schauffele said of Wolff, "If he plays the same way as today, it will be nearly impossible to catch."
If Wolff is victorious, it will be the first time a player has won the US Open on his debut at the event since Francis Ouimet did in 1913.
Wolff, who shot a 30. Winged Foot's front nine, didn't hit the ball as accurately, hitting only two of the 14 fairways. But his misses often weren't that far in the thick rough, and his length off the tee helped make up for his mistakes. He was precise with his iron game, hitting 13 greens by the rules and exhausting with the poise of a veteran who'd played in 20 majors instead of looking like a young pro who'd competed in just two (Wolff & # 39; first major appearance was finally PGA Championship of the Month, finishing fourth).
Wolff, who now shot in six of the seven rounds he played in majors in the 1960s, said he believed the more challenging conditions typical of those events brought out the best in him. above.
"I've always excelled at hard races," he said. "I have the swing speed to get the ball out of the deep rough, and I have the right attitude when things aren't going very well."
He added, "It's golf – I know things aren't that good. I'm not going there right away. You have to keep calm."
A test came on Saturday on the 16th hole, where Wolff hit his tee shot into the trees to the left of the fairway, had a small opening to the green, but shunned the risky shot and instead chip safely, leading to Wolff's only bogey in the third round, but he recovered with a par on the 17th hole and a birdie on the last green.
"I wasn't upset or anything; I just knew I had to minimize the damage, ”said Wolff of the 16th hole. "You have to keep thinking and make the smart game."
Patrick Reed, the leader in the second round, and DeChambeau, who started the first lap of the lead on Saturday, took off 45 minutes after Wolff. DeChambeau immediately found problems and hit the first green for three putts. His tee shot on the second hole then found the rough to the left of the fairway, triggering another bogey. But DeChambeau then began a long run of consistent scores.
Reed, so consistent in the first two rounds, also had a difficult start on Saturday, with two birdies and two bogeys in his first five holes. After three routine pars, he got some momentum with a birdie on the reachable par-5 ninth hole and seemed to regain his form. But a bad tee shot on the treacherous par-3 10th hole and an equally inadequate chip sparked another bogey. Reed threw another chip on the 11th hole, one of the easier holes on the course, and ended up doing a double bogey there. At that point, Reed, who had been at the top of the standings for most of the afternoon, was three strokes behind Wolff.
It got worse. Reed added three more bogeys in the next four holes and then – after a stabilizing par at number 16 – closed with two more. His seven-over 77 gave him a tie for 11th place, just eight shots from the lead.
While the golfers in the recommended groups went for the lead, Matsuyama attacked from behind with six birdies in his opening 14 holes. But, like so many other players, Matsuyama & # 39; s score card was a mix of good and bad, including bogeys on the second, third and seventh holes. He rallied, but a bogey on number 15 and a double on 17th marred an otherwise promising lap. Matsuyama still shot a 70, keeping him level for the tournament.
One of the more clear rounds of the day played McIlroy, who shot a 68 with three birdies and only one bogey.