SAN DIEGO — For Matthew Wolff, rock bottom came in April when he was at the Masters, perhaps golf’s most cherished event, and was utterly miserable.
“The entire time there my head was down and I hated it,” said Wolff, 22, who a year ago was the PGA Tour’s breakout star with a string of top finishes that vaulted him to 12th in the world rankings. “I didn’t enjoy it and it was hard for me. The Masters was pretty much the turning point.”
Emboldened by other professional athletes who have talked this year about concerns for their mental health and the outsize expectations of their jobs, Wolff decided that he had to walk away from golf for nearly two months.
“Seeing all these other athletes coming out and being like mental health is such an important thing and whether it’s something that’s going on personally or you’re not playing well or you’re not enjoying it,” Wolff said on Thursday after shooting a one-under par 70 in the first round of the U.S. Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course. “I just needed to take a break.”
It was Wolff’s first tournament since missing the cut at the Zurich Classic in late April.
Wolff called the comments of athletes like the tennis star Naomi Osaka, who has recently discussed her issues with anxiety and depression, a primary inspiration for his decision to take time off from competition, and also for returning to the course.
“Mental health is a really big problem and we play a lot of golf or we play a lot of games and any professional athlete has to deal with a lot more stress and pressure than most people,” he said. “And it just kind of got to me. But I’ve been working on it. I’ve been learning and I think that’s all I can do. It’s probably something I’ll be doing for most of my career but I’m feeling a lot better.
“It’s been a help to know that others are talking about the same things I am — and I’ve gotten a ton of support from the fans out there. People were yelling, ‘It’s good to see you back, Matt.’ And that was great.”
Wolff was 11-over par through two rounds at this year’s Masters then signed an incorrect scorecard and was disqualified. A few weeks before that, he had shot a first-round 83 at the World Golf Championship-Workday tournament and promptly withdrew without citing an injury, which is highly uncommon for tour players. That exit followed a first-round 78 and another withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open. Since late last season, Wolff has played in 10 successive tournaments without finishing in the top 25.
Moreover, Wolff’s countenance had changed from 2020, when he usually seemed to enjoy interacting with fans and his colleagues. This spring, Wolff played and behaved like someone who could not wait to get off the course.
“I was in a pretty bad head space,” he said.
But on Thursday, Wolff smiled easily even though his round was topsy-turvy. He was tied for the lead at one point at three-under par but slumped to one under a few holes later. Overall, Wolff had eight birdies, three bogeys and two double bogeys.
“A lot of good and a lot of bad,” Wolff answered with a snicker when asked to describe his play. “But that’s OK. That’s golf and I’m having fun with it. That’s what I have to focus on.
“Many millions of people would trade with me in a heartbeat. And I needed to just kind of get back and be like, ‘Dude, you live an unbelievable life, like you don’t always have to play good.’ I wanted to be too perfect. I wanted to always please the fans — maybe too much sometimes.”
Wolff’s 70 on Thursday had him three strokes off the championship’s early leader, Russell Henley, who shot 67. With half the field still finishing rounds, Francesco Molinari and Rafa Cabrera-Bello trailed Henley by one stroke. Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele, two of the pretournament favorites, were one stroke behind them. Phil Mickelson struggled throughout his round with five bogeys and shot 75. Viktor Hovland, a contemporary of Wolff’s whose impressive play this year has had made him a major championship contender, shot 74. Justin Thomas, who won this year’s Players Championship, opened with a two-over par 73.
Wolff, however, was not watching the scoreboard, even though he was the third-round leader at the 2020 U.S. Open and the eventual runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau.
“Like it’s awesome that I played well today, I mean, I’m thrilled,” said Wolff, adding that he did not watch golf on television during his two-month layoff. “But no matter what happened today the score that I shot I, like I said, I just have been having fun and I haven’t had fun out here in quite awhile.”