Matthew Wolff off to fast US Open start after mental health hiatus

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SAN DIEGO — Matthew Wolff was riding high, part of the younger generation poised to take over golf.

And then he was gone.

Wolff, who seemingly had life by the scruff of the neck, was in trouble and he felt the need to step away from the game.

This was no mid-life, mid-career crisis. Wolff is 22 years old.

But he was unhappy on the golf course — his bloated scores would attest to that — and that bled into his life off the course. So, he opted to address his mental well-being.

A few years ago, such a thing would have been taboo, surely ridiculed and picked apart by the masses of Twitter geniuses lurking in cyberspace.

But, thanks to the growing number of high-profile athletes who’ve had the courage to bring attention to their respective mental health issues — the likes of swimmer Michael Phelps, NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, soccer’s Abby Wambach, golf broadcaster David Feherty and, most recently, tennis star Naomi Osaka — Wolff felt enabled to come forward himself and address his problems.

Only nine months ago at Winged Foot, Wolff was the youngest player to hold a 54-hole lead in a U.S. Open since 1971 before he ended up finishing runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau.

On Thursday, Wolff, who hadn’t played a tournament since April, found himself leading the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines only minutes after he teed off, getting to 3-under par through his first four holes with three fast birdies.

He would encounter some rough patches in the round, but still managed to finish 1-under — though he’d later say whatever score he shot was going to be OK because merely returning to the public arena was such a significant step.

“Mental health is a really big problem,’’ Wolff said. “Any professional athlete has to deal with a lot more stress and pressure than most people and it just kind of got to me.’’

Wolff conceded that “seeing all these other athletes coming out’’ and addressing mental health struggles “led me to taking time off.’’

This Wolff wants to make clear: He’s not seeking sympathy from anyone.

Much like his young star contemporaries in the sport, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland, Wolff comes off as a player who gets it.

“I live an amazing life,’’ he said. “So many millions and millions and millions of people would trade me in a heartbeat. I needed to just kind of get back and be like, ‘Dude, you live an unbelievable life … you don’t always have to play good.’

“I know I want to always play good, I want to always please the fans, but I just kind of realized that the more I’ve been taking a little bit of time off, the more I just realized I was like, I just need to enjoy myself and be happy.’’

Thursday at Torrey Pines was as good a start to the next chapter of Wolff’s life as he could have asked for.

He called playing again “therapeutic,’’ adding, “Definitely, my confidence has gone up. I didn’t really have any confidence before I started today, maybe just because I was so anxious or nervous or scared, but it’s just awesome being out there. I just can’t emphasize it enough, more than the score that I shot I was just happy to actually be smiling and laughing out there because I haven’t done it in a long time and it’s hard to do when there’s this much pressure and people and eyes watching you and stuff.’’

Give Wolff credit: When you’re coming off a disqualification at the Masters for signing for a score lower than you shot, three withdrawals and overall terrible golf (83 at the WGC-Workday), to make your return at a U.S. Open takes some guts.

“I figure if I shoot 78, there’s going to be a lot of people that do it as well, so I won’t stand out quite as much,’’ Wolff joked. “I just felt like this was a good time to be back.’’

He called the Masters “pretty much the turning point’’ to him realizing he had a problem to address.

“The entire time my head was down and I hated it,’’ Wolff said. “I didn’t love being out there. It was hard for me. I mean, I want to try to be strong for all the fans, but I guess I just am not that strong yet. But I’m trying my hardest and I’m getting there.

“The biggest thing right now that I’m trying to do is enjoy myself again and just take care of myself. I love these fans and I want to play well for them, but right now I’m just really trying to be happy. I live a great life and I want to enjoy it.’’

Thursday was a great start.

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