A 21-year-old first-time competitor winning the first U.S. Open contested in September since 1913, which was also the last time a player won in his U.S. Open debut. The storyline sounds too delicious.
But here is Matthew Wolff, just 16 months removed from toting books at Oklahoma State, putting himself in position to accomplish something that hasn’t happened in 107 years.
Oh by the way, that guy who accomplished that feat back in 1913 was a 20-year-old amateur upstart named Francis Ouimet. He not only bucked the odds at The Country Club outside of Boston, he defeated two of the game’s luminaries in a playoff: Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Wolff, competing in his second major championship, is 18 holes away on Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course from producing his own history. If his final round on Sunday is anything like Saturday’s remarkable 5-under-par 65, Wolff can start working on his victory speech.
Of course, there are still 18 nerve-racking holes remaining on an unrelenting layout. And while Wolff contended in last month’s PGA Championship eventually won by another second-year professional (Collin Morikawa), he has never been a 54-hole leader in a major. In fact, he’s the youngest 54-hole leader in a major since Jordan Spieth, then 20, in the 2014 Masters. Bubba Watson got past Spieth on that Sunday, but Spieth went on to win both the Masters and U.S. Open the following year. Wolff is the youngest to lead after 54 holes in a U.S. Open since amateur Jim Simons in 1971 at Merion (who finished tied for fifth).
Nevertheless, the Southern Californian with the unorthodox swing will sleep on a two-stroke advantage over Bryson DeChambeau. Wolff, the 2019 NCAA individual champion who sits at 5-under 205, and DeChambeau, the 2015 NCAA and U.S. Amateur winner, are two of the three golfers in red figures through 54 holes. DeChambeau, who came into Saturday a stroke behind 36-hole leader Patrick Reed, rebounded late to shoot a 70.
Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion from South Africa, carded a 68 for a 54-hole total of 209.
Plenty of other highly qualified pursuers are within six strokes, including four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, who fired a third-round 68 (211) to move from T-22 to solo seventh. Perennial contenders Hideki Matsuyama and Xander Schauffele are at even-par 210 with Harris English.
“He's not afraid,” said Schauffele of Wolff, the 2017 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up. “It's not that surprising. I played with him the final round of the PGA Championship, and he destroyed that place, as well, and it was playing difficult there on the last day.”
What’s remarkable about Wolff’s third-round performance is the fact he hit just two fairways yet managed to reach 12 greens in regulation (three of which were on par 3s). For the week, he’s 12 for 42 in fairways hit (tied for 58th) and 33 of 54 in greens in regulation (tied for 13th). The missed fairways would seem to be a recipe for disaster around Winged Foot, with its penal rough and challenging green complexes.
Wolff, who opened the championship with a 66, has thus far found a formula for success. A streak of 19 consecutive bogey-free holes from his 13th hole on Friday ended with a 5 on the par-4 16th on Saturday. That run included a 5-under 30 on the outward nine and a closing birdie from 10 feet on No. 18.
“I think my putting was by far the best it's felt in the last two or three months,” said Wolff, who totaled 26 putts. “I feel like I'm really hitting the ball well. My irons were really good, and even though I only hit two fairways, my driver was … just barely off. But that's the U.S. Open.
“Even though I missed the fairway, there were a lot of times I was in that graduated rough that's a little shorter, and I feel like yesterday the difference was I was in the really long stuff. I'm just excited to be where I'm at and look forward to tomorrow.”
He will be paired with a fellow long hitter in DeChambeau, who closed out his round with birdies on 16 and 17 before missing a 5-foot par putt on the closing hole.
“The round today was a huge battle,” said DeChambeau, who is looking to join Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to have won the U.S. Amateur, NCAA title and U.S. Open. “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.”
The day began chilly and breezy but morphed into an idyllic late-summer afternoon with sunshine, light breezes and temperatures in the mid-60s. But even in benign conditions, Winged Foot can be punishing.
Just ask Reed.
Two days of short-game magic vanished into the Westchester County air. Eight missed fairways and nine greens in regulation led to a 77 and a share of 11th, eight strokes behind Wolff.
How far behind is too far? Given Winged Foot’s long history of wild Sunday finishes, don’t count Reed or anyone else within shouting distance out.
The major question: Can Wolff manage his nerves and game on championship Sunday?
“I bet you I'm probably going to be a little antsy,” said Wolff. “It's the U.S. Open, and I have a lead. I'm going to try to keep my nerves as calm as they can be, and like I said, relax tonight, [and] not really try to think about it.”
For the third consecutive day, there were no bogey-free rounds. Before this year, the last three U.S. Opens without a bogey-free round were 2018 (Shinnecock Hills), 2013 (Merion) and 2010 (Pebble Beach).
The stroke average for the third round was 73.62. The par-3 third hole ranked the toughest (3.58), while the par-5 ninth was easiest (4.61).
The last time two players age 23 and under won majors in the same year was 1923 (Gene Sarazen and Bob Jones). Matthew Wolff has a chance to join PGA champion Collin Morikawa.
Wolff is the youngest player to shoot 65 or better in a U.S. Open since amateur Nick Taylor carded a 65 in Round 2 of the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
Wolff ranks first in birdies (14) and second in total putts (82).
This was Louis Oosthuizen’s 10th career round of 68 or better in a U.S. Open. Only six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson (11) has more among players to have never won.
Paul Casey’s 5-under 30 on the back nine matched Wolff for the lowest nine-hole score of the championship. The Englishman registered four consecutive birdies from No. 11 and then added a fifth birdie on the par-4 18th, converting a 7-foot putt to card a 1-under 69.
Alex Noren, of Sweden, moved from a tie for 49th to a share of 12th after posting a 3-under 67, the second-best round of the day. The former Oklahoma State standout has not finished better than a tie for 25th in seven U.S. Open starts.
Including the United States, 21 countries are represented on the weekend, including a pair of players from Belgium (Thomas Pieters and Thomas Detry).
Danny Lee, of New Zealand, withdrew following Round 3 with a wrist injury. Lee, the 2008 U.S. Amateur champion, had a disappointing finish on Saturday, making a 9 on the par-4 18th for an 8-over 78.
“I feel like I'm ready to win out here and win a major. I've already won a PGA Tour event (2019 3M Open) and I knew my game was in a really good spot. I've been feeling really good, really confident, and with my mindset right now how I'm thinking about the game is really good.” – Matthew Wolff
“I think the past two majors I've played in I've been right in contention. It's definitely validating, albeit there's a lot more to go. I've got to figure out a lot more. I am excited to be in this position for sure. There's no better place to be.” – Bryson DeChambeau
“I need to play pretty similar to what I did today. You need to hit fairways. I think everyone out there now, especially on this golf course, knows you need to be patient. A lot can happen even in the last two, three holes, so try and get yourself in a position with three, four, five holes to go and see what you can do.” – Louis Oosthuizen (1-under 209) on his mindset for Sunday
“It was just one of those days. I couldn't find a fairway, and from there trying to guess out of the rough all day, it was just hard. It was brutal.” – Patrick Reed
“It's just another day at the U.S. Open. [It] kind of beats the crap out of you and [I’ll] kind of recover tonight and have dinner and laugh about it and then try and do it again tomorrow.” – Xander Schauffele (even-par 210), who has not finished lower than a tie for sixth in his three U.S. Open starts
“I feel like I've been putting in a lot of hard work. I'm getting more battle-tested in situations like this, and I feel like I'm ready for it. I love setups like this where you grind out pars, you don't have to make a lot of birdies, you can really set yourself apart. Hopefully my iron game will be on tomorrow like I know it can be, and I make some putts and I'll hopefully be in the mix.” – Harris English
“It's sort of a double-edged sword, because you would think that you'd want tougher conditions because it'll make it more difficult for the guys in front of you, but also makes it more difficult for yourself. I think looking at the forecast, the conditions are going to be pretty similar to today, which is fine. If I go out there tomorrow and shoot another 68, I won't be too far away.” – Rory McIlroy on being the chaser going into the final round
“I was just trying not to shoot 80, in fairness, after that front nine (39). Actually for a moment there, I had to count my score because I thought there was every chance of a 29. I'm glad I finally got one off of Winged Foot. It takes its pound of flesh every single time you seem to play this golf course, so I feel like I got an ounce or two of my own flesh back.” – Paul Casey on carding a second-nine 30 and 1-under 69
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.