Matthew Wolff stood over the closest thing he’d find to an easy shot at Winged Foot: 103 yards away from the pin on a flat lie in the fairway.
The 21-year-old basher, who gouged his way out of the rough all week at the U.S. Open, blocked the wedge into the deep grass to the right of the 11th green. A possible birdie attempt to stay within two ended up as a par to fall behind by three.
It got worse from there.
The player Wolff was chasing, Bryson DeChambeau, didn’t make those kind of mistakes. After carrying a two-shot lead into Sunday, Wolff shot 5-over 75. He finished at even-par 280 and lost to DeChambeau by six shots.
While giving all respect to DeChambeau, Wolff was hardly convinced he’d played 10 strokes worse than Saturday when he shot 65 to take the lead.
“There were a couple shots, a couple 3 woods, that I hit that were really uncharacteristic,” Wolff said. “Those were pretty bad, but, yeah, not 10 shots worse.”
If part of it was his own mistakes, another part of it, in Wolff’s view, were breaks that didn’t go his way.
On the par-3 10th, he was standing just above the deepest bunker on the course, forced to grip halfway down the shaft of his wedge to make contact to pitch the ball onto the green. That led to a bogey.
On the par-5 12th, both his and DeChambeau’s drives bounced in the rough. DeChambeau’s ball careened into the fairway. Wolff’s lodged in the deep grass. Both players made par, but by that point, Wolff trailed by three and needed something better.
“A foot or a couple inches more, and I have a different lie, or it stays up on a ridge, or things like that, can be three, four shots,” Wolff said. “If I’m that much closer to Bryson coming down the stretch, I’m sure he feels a little bit more pressure.”
Wolff was trying to become the youngest player since Bobby Jones in 1923 to win America’s championship. Instead, the reigning NCAA champion out of Oklahoma State ended up with his first runner-up finish — part of a two-man show that really was all about one guy, DeChambeau, by the end.
The matchup was billed as a showdown between two players who, for the first three days at least, shunned the normal U.S. Open doctrine — caring not as much about hitting fairways, and instead feeling perfectly comfortable relying on their power and strength to gouge short shots out of the rough.
The funny thing: Wolff hit two fairways to open the day and three fairways over the front nine. That was one more than he hit all of Saturday.
But on Saturday, he made five birdies on the front to shoot 30. On Sunday, he made three bogeys over the first eight holes. And even his eagle on the par-5 ninth felt like something less. He had to make it simply to stay one back after DeChambeau made a 40-foot putt for an eagle of his own.
Wolff was well aware that at most U.S. Opens, even par over four days would be something to celebrate. That score would’ve won four of the previous five Opens played at Winged Foot, which gave up exactly one below-par score — DeChambeau’s — over Sunday’s final round.
In fact, were it not for DeChambeau, this would’ve been some kind of walk to the 18th green for Wolff. He stuck his approach to 10 feet and got ready to line up a putt for what could’ve been his only birdie of the day.
But if there was any lingering doubt about who Sunday really belonged to, the ensuing scene on the green confirmed it.
DeChambeau, who was just behind Wolff on the same line, rolled in his clinching par putt and thrust his fists up to celebrate. Wolff followed with one of the most meaningless birdie attempts of his young career.
It stayed just right of the cup. He tapped in for par. And par for the course on a day that, in Wolff’s words, “just wasn’t meant to be.”