Matthew Wolff is playing his first U.S. Open and carving his own path.
That starts with shots he gouges out of the rough. It ends with him making six birdies, the last one a towering 7-iron from the first cut of rough that landed over the steep slope on the 18th green at Winged Foot and settled 10 feet right of the pin to match the best score — a 5-under 65 — at Winged Foot in a major.
He hit only two fairways Saturday on a course — and a major — with a blueprint for avoiding the rough. The only number that mattered to the 21-year-old Californian was a two-shot lead going into the final round.
“There's a lot of holes out there that maybe people would try to hit it in the fairway or maybe take the safe play because it is a U.S. Open, and they know that pars are a good score," Wolff said. “But I don't really like to think of it that way. I like to go out there and do what I feel comfortable with, rip dog and see how it goes from there.”
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It's going so well that Wolff is one round away from becoming the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923.
Maybe he's too young to realize U.S. Open champions are supposed to play from the short grass Or maybe Wolff is so dynamic and talented that it doesn't matter.
Either way, he held a two-shot lead over Bryson DeChambeau, another guy with a recipe all his own, who only hit three fairways managed to hang in there long enough to scratch out a 70 to keep his hopes very much alive.
“The round today was a huge battle," said DeChambeau, who was still on the range in darkness Saturday night. “I was proud of the way I persevered out there today. It was difficult. Especially when you’re not hitting it straight in the fairway. For me it felt like I kept myself in it, scrambled really well.”
Whether it was the first cut or the nasty rough, Wolff kept giving those hips one last swivel before blasting away and giving himself birdie chances. He shot 30 on the front nine — and missed a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 8 after hitting his first fairway of the round — and then let so many others fall apart.
Patrick Reed, tied for the lead at the turn, couldn't find the fairway and paid dearly with a 43 on the back nine. Reed had a three-shot lead after two holes. He walked off the 18th green with a 77 and was eight shots behind.
“Anyone in my position would be frustrated, especially with having the lead going into today," Reed said. "The great thing is there’s always tomorrow, and like I said, it’s a U.S. Open. Even though eight shots seems like a lot ... you never know.”
Collin Morikawa won the PGA Championship last month in his first try at age 23. Now here comes Wolff, playing his first U.S. Open at age 21. Is he next?
The last U.S. Open champion to win in his debut was Francis Ouimet in 1913. That also was the last time the U.S. Open was played in September.
“I’m probably going to be a little antsy. It’s the U.S. Open, and I have a lead,” Wolff said. “I’m going to try to keep my nerves as calm as they can be. I put myself in a really good spot. I did everything that I could do up until this point, and tomorrow I’m going to go out there, I promise you I’m going to try my best.”
He was at 5-under 205.
DeChambeau could easily have gone the same route as Reed, missing left and right, gouging his way out of the grass. But after opening with two bogeys, he kept scrambling away — 15 straight holes with nothing worse than par. He rallied with two late birdies until missing a short par putt on the 18th for a 70.
He will be in the final group for the first time in a major, another quiet affair with no spectators on the course.
The U.S. Open began with 21 players under par. There were six going into the weekend. Now it's down to three, with Louis Oosthuizen efficiently putting together a 68 to finish at 1-under 209.
Hideki Matsuyama (70), Xander Schauffele (70) and Harris English (72) were at even-par 210. Another shot back was Rory McIlroy, who posted his 68 some three hours before the leaders finished.
“It doesn't take much around here ... and all of a sudden you're right in the thick of things," McIlroy said. “No matter where I am at the end of the day, I feel like I've got a pretty good shot.”
It all depends on Wolff, an NCAA champion at Oklahoma State who won on the PGA Tour in his third event as a pro last summer in the 3M Open in Minnesota.
I feel like I’m ready to win out here and win a major,” Wolff said. “It is a major. It’s really important and yes, it is really early in my career. But I feel like I have the game to win. Collin won at 23. I’m 21. And I’m not saying that it’s going to happen. But I put myself in a really good spot, and obviously I’m feeling really good with my game.”
From the first cut of rough on the opening hole, he hit it to the right level of the contoured green for a 15-foot birdie. From the right rough on No. 4, he wound up with another 15-foot birdie putt. And then he really poured it on.
He drove next to the green on the short par-4 sixth, getting up-and-down from a bunker for birdie. He holed a 12-foot birdie on the par-3 seventh. He finished the back nine with a two-putt eagle on No. 9 after hitting his last fairway of the round.
His lone bogey came on the 16th when he was in such a bad lie in the rough he couldn't reach the green. And he finished with a most fortuitous hop. His iron off the tee bounced into the thick rough and hopped back out to the first cut. That set up his shot at green, and Wolff seized on the opportunity.
“If I don't hit fairways tomorrow, I know I can play well,” Wolff said with a smile.