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From losing every ball to contending, Matthew Wolff trying 'to have a good time'

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Matthew Wolff says he isn’t trying to win a golf tournament this week – even though he might end up doing so.

Wolff opened with a 5-under 65 Thursday at the Wells Fargo Championship in what was a much-needed sign of progress for the former phenom.

After an encouraging end to his fall slate, Wolff doesn’t have a PGA Tour finish inside the top 60 this year and has dropped outside the top 50 in the world ranking. Wolff said that a few days ago, at his home course, he “lost every ball I had in my bag” and entered the week at TPC Potomac with zero expectations. On Thursday, he produced his best score on Tour in seven months. 

“I’m thrilled,” he said.

Wolff, 23, has been open about some of his mental-health struggles over the past year. After the opening round outside D.C., he reflected on the more difficult parts of his journey, including how being lumped in with fellow class-of-2019ers Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland produced expectations and pressure that he wasn’t yet equipped to handle, and how his dour on-course demeanor has affected his fellow playing competitors.

Success had come easily to Wolff, who in 2019 won the NCAA individual title to help launch his star. Within a few months he was a PGA Tour winner, outdueling Morikawa down the stretch to win the 3M Open. A year later, he was the 54-hole leader at the 2020 U.S. Open before eventually falling to Bryson DeChambeau.

But there have been few bright spots since, while his ballyhooed peers moved into the spotlight. Morikawa won two majors. Hovland racked up titles and crashed the top 5 in the world. Those two players were older – Morikawa graduated and is 25; Hovland spent three years in school and turns 25 in September – and more mature than Wolff, who turned pro at age 20 and was one of the youngest Tour members.

“It’s hard because the down times I’ve had, I’ve had to do it in front of everyone,” he said. “In college, I know there’s some eyeballs, but if you have down times in college or the mini-tours or Korn Ferry Tour, which is where I’d probably be right now if I hadn’t turned pro, it’s a little easier to overcome those because you don’t feel like you’re fully in the spotlight.”

Full-field scores from Wells Fargo Championship

“I don’t regret what I’ve done,” he continued. “I think everything played out the way it was supposed to, and I know I’m going to be better and happier from it because of everything that I went through. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be better for my peers and my playing competitors and myself as well.”

Indeed, that’s an ongoing process for Wolff, who acknowledged that he was embarrassed by some of his on-course behavior as he worked his way through his slump.

“It’s happened a couple times, and I wish I could go back and reverse it and I feel terrible,” he said. “I never want to affect anyone else, and I was obviously affecting myself a lot. It’s hard to play good when you’re playing with someone who’s like that. If I let it affect someone else, then that’s unacceptable. It’s definitely just been learning experiences and growing and maturing a little bit. I’m trying to be better for them, and for myself as well.”

Thursday at the Wells Fargo represented a positive start, with Wolff carding his lowest score since the final round at Mayakoba in November – and having a fun time doing it, alongside playing partners C.T. Pan and Luke List. Wolff shared the lead among the early starters at TPC Potomac and finished the day two back.

“I know I’ve struggled,” he said, “but I know everyone in the world would probably trade places with me, so I need to start learning to enjoy myself and realize how good I have it.”

A reporter asked how the low first-round score changed his expectations for the rest of the week, especially after what he said was an ugly week of prep.

“Absolutely nothing,” he said. “I can go out and shoot 90 tomorrow, and as long as I have a good attitude, I can put a checkmark on this week and say that I’ve grown as a person and as a player, and that’s just all I really care about right now. …

“To be honest, it’s funny, but I’m not here to win a golf tournament – I’m here to have a good time.”