Matthew Wolff isn’t the global figure that Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are in their respective sports.
But Wolff, a 22-year-old PGA Tour player who’s finding his way, is pushing the same message those two superstars have in recent months — that dealing with mental health should not be a stigma and that mental issues for high-level athletes are not unlike torn ACLs and rotator cuffs when it comes to debilitating injuries.
Life came at Wolff pretty fast.
In college at Oklahoma State, Wolff became only the third player to win both the NCAA individual title and a PGA Tour event in the same year, joining Tiger Woods and Ben Crenshaw.
He turned pro in June 2019 and won on the PGA Tour a month later. In his first two major championships, he finished tied for fourth at the 2020 PGA Championship and second at the 2020 U.S. Open.
It appeared that Wolff had everything — success, money, fame, an outgoing personality and good looks.
Until none of those things mattered anymore.
By early 2021, Wolff’s supposedly perfect life was crumbling. He wasn’t happy on the golf course or off of it.
Life was coming at him so fast that he made the profoundly mature decision to slow it down.
After a series of calamitous events on the golf course — a sudden withdrawal at the 2021 Farmers Insurance after a first-round 78, another WD at the WGC-Workday after a first-round 83, a disqualification at the Masters after shooting 76 in the first round and signing for a wrong score in the second round and a WD from the PGA Championship before it began — Wolff stepped away from the PGA Tour in April, citing mental health issues.
When Wolff burst onto the scene in 2019, he entered the PGA Tour as part of a trio of special 20-something players, including Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland, who seemed destined for greatness. Wolff — though polite and respectful — came off as the least polished and mature of the three.
Morikawa and Hovland were old souls — mature beyond their ages. Wolff was the happy-go-lucky one. Yet his decision to step away and his subsequent bravery to speak transparently about it elevated Wolff’s maturity level.
Wolff took his time off and returned to play the U.S. Open in June. This week’s Northern Trust at Liberty National in Jersey City is his sixth event since his hiatus.
“It’s still a grind,’’ Wolff said. “I’m doing a lot better. I feel like I’m starting to feel like the performance doesn’t so much affect the person that I am, and I can still be friendly to fans and talk to people and smile and have fun out there and enjoy all the hard work that I’ve put in to be where I am today.’’
Morikawa on Wednesday praised Wolff’s decision to take time off and address his issues.
“It was a very honorable decision, and I’m so glad people are talking about it because we really don’t know what people are going through,’’ Morikawa said. “You don’t know what your friend might be going through. By Matt, at such a young age, to realize that — like with people like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles — to step up for younger people I think it’s very important.’’
Morikawa said he spent some time with Wolff both at the U.S. Open in June and on Tuesday at Liberty National and is encouraged by what he’s seen and heard from his friend.
“I think Matt is getting better,’’ Morikawa said. “It was great to see him at the U.S. Open. I talked with him for a little bit and he seemed like a completely different person, and he seemed happy about it. And that’s how I know Matt. Matt’s a very happy kid … he’s a kid. It’s good to see him back on track.’’
Everyone has his or her own insecurities — even those at the top of their professions and those whose lives seem to border on perfection.
Though his life looked bulletproof, he had the wherewithal to slow it down and the courage to address it publicly.
Good for him. And good for the countless people he’s undoubtedly helped in the process the same way Osaka and Biles have.
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