Rookie Wolff leads the way but chasing pack ready to pounce

McIlroy six back at US Open but says he's feeling pretty good about his chances Sunday.
Rookie Wolff leads the way but chasing pack ready to pounce

The Graduate: Matthew Wolff lines up a putt on the second green during Saturday's third round of the US Open at Winged Foot.

The rookie Class of 2019 is waging another friendly takeover bid of a 2020 major championship.

A month after Collin Morikawa converted his PGA Championship debut into a victory, Matthew Wolff is threatening to do the same in his US Open debut at Winged Foot.

Despite hitting only two of 14 fairways on Saturday, Wolff raced to the top of the leaderboard by matching the US Open course record 65 set by Justin Thomas on Thursday. Wolff, 21, is 5-under for the tournament and slept on a two-shot lead over Bryson DeChambeau after 54 holes.

Wolff made five birdies on the front nine Saturday to shoot 30, then scrambled around the back side in even par after making birdie on the 18 th hole. He “really” likes his chances to convert despite his inexperience.

“I feel like I'm ready to win out here and win a major,” Wolff said. “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, and with my mindset right now how I'm thinking about the game is really good. I really think that I can go out there and play really well.

“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, like I said, to win. Collin won at 23. I'm 21, and I'm not saying that it's going to happen, but I mean, I put myself in a really good spot and obviously I'm feeling really good with my game. So I'm just going to keep on doing what I'm doing and whatever happens happens.” 

Wolff was the leader of a can’t-miss pack of collegiate stars who turned pro last summer and quickly ascended into the top 50 in the world rankings, including his Arizona State teammate Viktor Hovland and the more senior Morikawa. Wolff won the Haskins Award as the top collegiate player, claimed the individual title at the NCAA Championship and then won the 3M Open in his third PGA Tour start – making an eagle on the final hole to beat DeChambeau and Morikawa.

Despite his unusually animated swing, he plays with a fearlessness that has served him well making the quick transition into professional stardom. He finished tied for fourth in his major championship debut at the PGA last month. He’s attacking the course in similar fashion to DeChambeau, redrafting the presumptive gameplan for how to play a U.S. Open.

“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. I feel comfortable with every part of my game so I don't like to shy away from things when I'm feeling confident, and I'm probably going to do the same (Sunday).” 

Wolff has actually hit fewer fairways this week (only 12) than DeChambeau (17), whose unflinching attack mode has led to an adventurous journey into his first final pairing on a major Sunday.

DeChambeau stuttered early on Saturday with bogeys on his first two holes, but he scrambled cleanly the rest of the way until making bogey on the 18 th hole to shoot even par and stay 3-under.

“The round today was a huge battle,” DeChambeau said. “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.” 

There is a stellar cast lined up close enough behind to capitalise Sunday is the aggressive lead duo should falter. Former Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen is the only other player left in red figures at 1- under after his 68 Saturday was one of the seven rounds under par on Saturday.

“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,” said Oosthuizen, who owns a Silver Slam with runner- ups in every major. “Yeah, just need to go out and play some good golf.” 

Tied for fourth at even par are Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele and Harris English, while Rory McIlroy lurks alone in seventh place at 1-over after a 68 of his own.

“I'm feeling pretty good that I've got a good chance going into tomorrow,” McIlroy said of his chances to make up a six-shot deficit on a course where 54-hole leaders have traditionally struggled.

Patrick Reed, the 36-hole leader, widened his lead to three shots early on Saturday and still held a share of the lead with Wolff at 5-under when he made the turn. But the errant shots he’d managed to minimize the first two days caught up with him as he shot 8-over on the back to shoot 77.

“I got all my bad shots out of the way,” Reed said. “You know, 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.” 

While Reed faded from reasonable contention, DeChambeau refused to let any challenging position he put himself in deter his quest to prove that he’s discovered a new way to overpower even the toughest course and impose his will on major championships. He’s in prime position to do so after also tying with Wolff for fourth at the PGA in his best career major finish.

“I think the past two majors I've played in I've been right in contention,” DeChambeau said. “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.”

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