NEW YORK • In May, with most global sports competitions suspended because of the pandemic, veterans Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler competed in a made-for-TV charity golf match.
Almost as a lark, or perhaps to lure a younger audience, Matthew Wolff, a 21-year-old PGA Tour newcomer, was invited to play, too.
At the time, he was known mostly for his peculiar pre-shot twitch, his quirky swing and his long drives, and he clearly appeared nervous at the start as he sprayed shots around the course.
But his presence was charming, like an overanxious kid brother who nonetheless puts everyone at ease. At one point, in mock derision, McIlroy referred to him as “youngster”.
After Saturday’s third round of the US Open, in which Wolff shot a five-under 65 for a five-under 205 total to take a two-stroke lead, the Ulsterman chose different words when describing his friend.
“That’s just awesome golf,” the 31-year-old said of Wolff’s dynamic play on Saturday afternoon.
“I mean, everyone knows how talented Matt is.”
Wolff has awell chance for a historic US Open victory, but the American copes with his nerves by keeping his golf success in perspective.
The youngest 54-hole US Open leader since 1975, he could become the first player to win on his US Open debut since amateur Francis Ouimet in 1913.
And after his share of fourth spot in his Major debut at last month’s PGA Championship, there are few doubters that his early success is well earned.
“It’s really early in my career, but I feel like I have the game to win,” Wolff said. “I feel like I’m ready to win out here and win a Major.
“I’ve already won a PGA Tour event and I knew my game was in a really good spot. I’ve been feeling really good, really confident.
“But I’m not going to think about it too much and just go out there and do the same things I’ve done the last three days.”
Wolff, a winner at Minneapolis last year in his third PGA Tour start, has been thinking about the stomach cancer his agent has been battling. Suddenly his issues on the golf course are less significant.
“It’s just golf, even though it is the US Open,” he said. “My agent, John, is struggling right now.
“He doesn’t want anyone to feel bad for him, but it just puts things in perspective. And I’m going to go out there, try to make him proud… he loves watching me play golf.
“It’s important. It’s the US Open. But it’s just golf.”
It was another difficult day of scoring at Winged Foot as only seven players managed to break par on a layout renowned for its narrow fairways, thick rough and wildly undulating and speedy greens.
Among those who struggled and faded from contention were former world No. 1s Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm after matching 76s.
Bryson DeChambeau (70), who began one shot back of leader Patrick Reed, made a bogey-bogey start but leaned on his power to chase down Wolff. He squandered a chance to finish within one stroke of the lead when he two-putted from six feet for a closing bogey.
Former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (68) was alone in third place, four shots back of Wolff, while Hideki Matsuyama (70), Xander Schauffele (70) and Harris English (72) were a further stroke adrift.
Four-time Major champion McIlroy was six shots back after a 68.
World No. 10 Reed (77) drained a nine-foot birdie at the ninth hole to share the lead. But he fell apart over a nightmarish inward nine, during which he made six bogeys and a double bogey to fall into a tie for 11th place, eight shots back of Wolff.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS