BRADENTON, Fla. – This is a lousy time to play poorly.
Not just during this jam-packed stretch of the season, with two World Golf Championships (including this week), The Players Championship and the Masters all crammed into a seven-week span.
But in this COVID-19 era on the PGA Tour.
Approaching the one-year anniversary of the Tour shutdown, the restrictions on the players haven’t been loosened all that much. Sure, there are more people allowed on property, including significant others, but players are still very much following the same protocols and patterns: hotel, course, hotel. Repeat. That’s a lot of alone time for an extrovert and someone who already isn’t having fun on the course.
It’s an especially challenging time for someone like Matthew Wolff, who at 21 years old should be a college senior. After all, following last year’s cancellation, he’s still the reigning NCAA individual champion. But the toll is beginning to show, as he imploded Thursday at the WGC-Workday Championship with an opening-round 83 – despite four birdies. Asked by a PGA Tour media official if he’d talk to this reporter about his day, Wolff hardly acknowledged the request, bolting into the clubhouse. His trusty caddie, Nick Heinen, didn’t have any answers, either. “Wish I knew,” Heinen said as he left the scoring area.
About three hours after Wolff finished his round, the Tour announced that he'd withdrawn from the tournament. No reason was given.
Wolff was a revelation in 2019 and a major standout in 2020 but this year has been a confounding case. In his last seven starts he hasn’t cracked the top 35, with six rounds of 77 or worse. Last month, at the Farmers Insurance Open, he withdrew following a first-round 78, citing a hand injury. It wasn’t apparent on which swing he injured his hand, but he was shown on camera slamming his club into the turf in frustration.
If Wolff is still dealing with the lingering effects of that injury, it wasn’t clear Thursday. He just looked downright miserable. He made four bogeys, two doubles, a triple and a quad during the worst round of his pro career, and the worst score of this star-studded WGC by two before he pulled out of the event. Concession can punish anybody on an off-day – world No. 1 Dustin Johnson signed for a 77 – but it's even more cruel to those who aren't in the right headspace.
Normally one of the bubbliest and chattiest players on Tour, Wolff barely grunted more than a few words during his opening round. At times he was so disengaged that he wandered away from his group, ducking into the bushes, or lagged a hundred yards behind. On the fifth hole, he departed the green, head down, and had to be asked by his playing partner, Shane Lowry, to stop moving. On the sixth green, Wolff mindlessly practiced his putting and accidentally bumped his ball.
“You never want to see that,” said Victor Perez, who shot 69 alongside Wolff. “It’s obviously difficult for the group to have any rhythm. It seems like he was just struggling off the tee, which on this course, being deceptive, if you’re not really feeling your swing, it becomes quite difficult.”
So how can someone Wolff’s age blow off steam?
It’s not easy, not in these times.
Visiting bars and restaurants is strongly discouraged. Gyms, too. So are large gatherings. Wolff can’t regroup by being in the loving presence of a wife and kids. His affable swing coach, George Gankas, who has become like a father figure, has a busy teaching sheet at his California club and doesn’t travel to many events. Even with hundreds of thousands of fans, Wolff can still feel lonely out on Tour.
After turning pro, Wolff, who grew up in Southern California but went to school at Oklahoma State, got his own place on the other side of the country, in Jupiter, Florida. The move made sense, and not just because of the lack of state income tax – he could play year-round and be surrounded by elite competition, always able to find a game. But he’s also 3,000 miles away from his closest friends, and he soon found trouble achieving a work-life balance. Little wonder he also bought a new house in Oklahoma, about a half-hour from where he went to school in Stillwater. There, he can remain sharp but also be a college-aged kid, albeit a very rich and famous one with myriad sponsorship deals.
“Being back there, being around all my friends, it helps me settle down a little bit,” Wolff said last fall. “Florida, it’s awesome, but there’s not a lot of people my age down there. I have golf friends, but I like to come home and I’m a big sports fan and I like being around people. Being in Oklahoma allows me to get back to my roots and enjoy my time off the course.”
Much was made of how cool and calm Wolff appeared at the U.S. Open in September, when in just his second career major championship he shot a Saturday 65 and took a two-shot lead into the final round. Strolling to the first tee that Sunday at Winged Foot, he was chatting animatedly on his phone. Not to his family. Not to his girlfriend. Not to Gankas. But to one of his buddies. What was so important, just minutes before teeing off in golf’s most grueling test? The early scores from that day’s NFL games.
“That’s just him,” Heinen shrugged.
At the time, all was good. Wolff wouldn’t win the U.S. Open but he finished second to Bryson DeChambeau. In his next start, in Las Vegas, Wolff lost in a playoff. His game hasn’t been at the same level for the past four months, and his happy-go-lucky attitude has disappeared, too.
When I asked Shari Wolff last fall what her son is still learning, on a very public stage on Tour, she said: “To not get down on himself when he doesn’t do well. He’s very happy when he’s doing really well and smiling and having a good time. But if the tables turn, his whole attitude turns and his whole game tanks with it.
“If he can learn – and it’s very hard to do – that when he’s feeling a little off he can still say, But I’m happy. I’m happy to be out here. I love what I’m doing. Yeah, this tournament didn’t turn out the way I wanted to, but I’ve got a lot more. He’s working on that.”
Unfortunately, the Tour’s isolation era doesn’t make that inner battle any easier.