MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Matthew Wolff is playing the U.S. Open for the first time and carving his own path through the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club, which is hosting the United States Golf Association's big event for the sixth time.
That path starts with shots Wolff gouges out of the rough. It ends with him making six birdies in Saturday's third round, the last one created with a towering 7-iron shot from the first cut that landed over the steep slope on the 18th green and settled 10 feet right of the pin. He converted to match the best score — a 5-under-par 65 — at Winged Foot in a major, move to 5-under 205 through 54 holes and take a two-stroke lead over Bryson DeChambeau (70) into the final round.
Wolff hit only two fairways Saturday on a course — and at a major — with a blueprint for success that generally requires avoiding the rough. The only number that mattered to the 21-year-old Californian was his advantage with 18 to go.
"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."
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 stayed ahead of DeChambeau — another guy with a recipe all his own — who only hit three fairways but managed to hang in there long enough to stay in second for the second straight day and keep his hopes very much alive.
"The round today was a huge battle," said DeChambeau, who was still on the practice range after dark Saturday. "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."
South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen (68) was third at 1 under, with the 2010 British Open champion a stroke ahead of Harris English (72), Japan's Hideki Matsuyama (70) and Xander Schauffele (70).
English, a former Baylor School and University of Georgia standout, was two strokes out of the lead and tied for third place after Friday's play. That gave him a late tee time Saturday, but he found trouble early with four bogeys through his first seven holes before a birdie on the par-5 ninth. The 31-year-old closed the round with another birdie, was in the top 10 for the third straight day and stayed on track for his best finish in a major — at least.
After an impressive 2019-20 season that surprised many, he is certainly not giving up on a victory, but he knows no one else in striking distance is either.
"Yeah, it's going to be tough," English said in his remarks after the round. "If it's anything like it was those last six holes, we're going to be in for a lot tomorrow. I mean, they can put these pin placements in really tough spots, and the greens are getting so firm, it's just hard to get to some of those flagsticks.
"It's everything you want in a U.S. Open Sunday. It's set up for it perfectly. It's going to be chilly, low humidity, so they're going to get the greens rock hard, and I'm kind of setting my goal at even par again, and I think I'll be in a great spot."
Stephan Jaeger, who played for Baylor and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and won his way to this U.S. Open with success on the Korn Ferry Tour, went from tied for 12th after 36 holes to tied for 40th after a third-round 79 with two double bogeys in his first three holes.
As for Wolff, whether it was the first cut or the nasty rough, he 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 six-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, tied for 11th.
"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 most recent 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," said Wolff, the former NCAA champion from Oklahoma State whose lone PGA Tour win so far came in his first few weeks as a pro, the 3M Open in July 2019, when he finished a stroke ahead of DeChambeau and Morikawa.
"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."
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 Oosthuizen joining Wolff and DeChambeau.
After English, Matsuyama and Schauffele, alone in seventh at 1 over was four-time major champ 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 how the leader responds.
"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 the 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.