Matthew Wolff’s bid on Sunday to win the 120th U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club is rich with historical significance, given that he would be the first player since Francis Ouimet in 1913 to capture the national championship in his debut. By coincidence Ouimet’s playoff victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray came exactly 107 years ago to the day.
Ouimet was 20 at the time. Meanwhile, Vardon was 43 and Ray 36. (Both men won U.S. Open titles, Vardon in 1900 and Ray in 1920 at age 43, setting the record for oldest champion until Ray Floyd eclipsed him by a few months in his 1986 triumph at Shinnecock.)
Ouimet might have been inexperienced compared to the two British greats, but who says youth has to be wasted? And that has been the story of the U.S. Open, a championship that has seen only eight winners in their 40s. It’s a young man’s championship, especially of late when the oldest winner since 2010 was Gary Woodland last year at age 35. Seven of the last 10 champions have been in their 20s.
Wolff, who leads at 5-under 205, is vying to become the seventh-youngest U.S. Open winner at 21 years, 5 months and 6 days, sliding in between Bob Jones (21/4/12) and Walter Hagen (21/8/0). His nearest pursuer, Bryson DeChambeau, the 2015 U.S. Amateur winner, is 27 years old.
Among the top 10 on the leader board at Winged Foot, only two-time major winner Zach Johnson is in his 40s. Half are in their 20s. Young man’s game. Something to keep an eye on down the stretch.
Here are three additional things to know for the final round from Mamaroneck, N.Y.:
There has been mayhem at the par-4 finishing hole at Winged Foot over the years, but this championship might be decided at the start. The opening five holes have proven to be quite resistant to scoring. In Round 3, the first five holes were among the six toughest on which to hit the green in regulation, and the opening three holes ranked 3, 2 and 1, respectively, in difficulty. Rory McIlroy told NBC’s Mike Tirico before he teed off on Saturday that his success would be predicated on arriving at the sixth tee even par. He did just that and shot 68. How the leaders handle this stretch amid early-round nerves could be telling.
Top 10 Tussle
Winning is the thing. That goes without saying, but we are noting it anyway as a segue to the next-most important goal, at least for some players, and that is fighting to finish in the top 10 on the leader board. Top-10 finishers and ties earn an exemption into the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego, and players such as Lucas Glover, the 2009 champion, and Alex Noren could benefit from a strong finish. Both head into the final round T-11 – oh, so close, but they have work to do. Best to sew up a berth right now and take all the pressure off.
Greens With Envy
To a man, players will tell you how imperative it is to hit fairways at Winged Foot. Far be it for us to disagree with the experts. But the discipline that is likely to decide the championship is hitting greens in regulation. The top three players on the leader board, Wolff, DeChambeau and Louis Oosthuizen, combined to hit 11 fairways on Saturday. But they hit 38 greens in regulation collectively. All three rank among the top 13 in that statistical category through 54 holes. Finding fairways would make that task easier, thus the emphasis on driving accuracy, but control of the golf ball regardless of position off the tee is proving to be a real difference-maker.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.