107 years ago, an everlasting piece of U.S. Open history occurred.
Francis Ouimet, a local of Brookline, Massachusetts, defeated Harry Vardon to win the U.S. Open at The Country Club, where he lived in a home across the street.
It happened to be Ouimet’s U.S. Open debut.
Flash forward 107 years, and an eerily similar narrative is brewing at the 120th U.S. Open. Matthew Wolff, the 54-hole leader, is looking to become the first since Ouimet to win his U.S. Open debut. Starting his third round at even par, Wolff shot up the leaderboard, shooting a third-round 65. The 21-year-old sleeps with a two shot-lead ahead of Bryson DeChambeau, a chance at history within his grasp.
“I felt really good with all parts of my game, and I’m just excited to be where I’m at and look forward to tomorrow,” Wolff said to reporters after his round.
Heading into Saturday, Wolff’s probability to win the U.S. Open was 3.2 percent. Now, it’s 47.1 percent. Looking at Wolff’s driving stats doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence; he just hit two fairways in his entire third round. Lucky for Wolff, his tee shots landed in the opportune spots, not deep in the thick Winged Foot rough. Wolff used his strength to carry his iron shots to the green, leading to birdie opportunities. The California native recorded five birdies to shoot 30 on the front 9.
Matthew Wolff win probability
Beginning of round 3: 3.2%
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) September 20, 2020
The back 9 at Winged Foot is all about survival. Wolff did just that. With just one bogey, Wolff recorded a birdie on the punitive 18th hole, after his tee shot bounced from the deep rough to the first cut. Luck was on the youngster’s side and he will utilize a similar strategy if the U.S. Open comes down to the 72nd hole on Sunday.
“The fairways are really firm, and obviously finding the fairway not only on that hole but throughout the entire course is probably the most important thing,” Wolff said. “I feel like with an iron you give yourself the best chance, too, especially since it’s a north wind this week, so it’s downwind. It makes the hole a lot shorter and kind of gives you the best bet to keep the ball in front of you in the short grass.”
Wolff is no stranger near the top of the leaderboard. At the 2019 3M Open in Minnesota, Wolff and Bryson DeChambeau, his playing partner on Sunday, duked it out down the stretch, both eagling the 72nd hole to force a playoff. Wolff secured the victory over DeChambeau but at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit this year, it was Bryson who usurped the 21-year-old of his 54-hole lead.
Wolff learned a lot from these experiences, not fixating on the future and focusing more shot to shot.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, is not really looking ahead,” Wolff said. “I was kind of antsy at the beginning of the round in Detroit, the fourth round, and I think I’m going to go out there and just do my thing. It’s golf; anything can happen, especially at a course like this. I know if I keep calm and not let my emotions get the best of me, I should have a really good chance.”
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 20, 2020
Like Wolff, DeChambeau navigated Winged Foot more from the rough than the fairway. He hit just one more fairway than Wolff and looked like he was on his way to an over-par round with back-to-back bogeys.
But the long-hitting DeChambeau persevered. His resilience allowed him to get back-to-back birdies on 16 and 17, launching him up the leaderboard into second-place. Even though he bogeyed 18, DeChambeau is right on Wolff’s heels, looking to use the experience of his first top-10 at a major (2020 PGA Championship) to propel him to victory.
“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.”
Winged Foot architect A.W. Tillinghast would roll over in his grave, knowing how Wolff and DeChambeau are attacking his golf course. Despite Wolff hitting just 28.6 percent of his fairways through three rounds, the field is averaging a little under 40 percent this week. Fairways aren’t as necessary when these golfers are hitting the ball longer, landing it closer to the green to hit shorter iron shots. DeChambeau is currently fourth in the field in strokes gained: around the green, while Wolff recorded the most strokes gained in the third round of a U.S. Open (+8.63).
With a win, Wolff becomes the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods (1997 Masters) and the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones (1923).
Ouimet and Wolff could not be more different golfers. But a win tomorrow etches Wolff into the annals of U.S. Open history; 107 years to the day of Ouimet’s unlikliest of victories.