Wyndham Clark Captures the U.S. Open

Two Tuesdays ago, as the golf world erupted into chaos and fury, Wyndham Clark did not rush to write a shock-and-awe Twitter post. He did not fume in a meeting with the PGA Tour commissioner about the surprise pact with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. He did not moralize or criticize or, really, do much of anything other than play golf.

His chosen course that Tuesday was the Los Angeles Country Club, which would host the U.S. Open, its debut major tournament, nine days later. A member of the club was Clark’s caddie, a friend turned tutor who knew some of the secrets of a North Course only a handful of the game’s biggest stars had ever seen: how a putt might break here, how the speed might vary there, how firm the fairways might become.

The payoff came Sunday evening, when Clark, 29, outlasted Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open by one stroke and lurched into the hallowed fraternity of major championship winners. Until Sunday, Clark’s best finish in a major had been a tie for 75th at a P.G.A. Championship. His two previous Open appearances were even worse, ending with missed cuts.

But his mother, his “always there supporter” who died nearly a decade ago, used to offer an ambitious admonition: “Play big.”

This tour season, he has, emerging as a perilous foe and suggesting that he, despite his major record, could soon be a power on the game’s greatest stages. With his irons adjusted a few degrees and his swing monitored and finessed not by a platoon of advisers but only by Clark and his caddie, he arrived in Los Angeles having won the Wells Fargo Championship and having earned four other top-10 finishes since early February.

That Wells Fargo win, in May at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., had come against a foreboding list of rivals whose surnames — McIlroy and Spieth, Scott and Day — were bywords for golfing brilliance even before Clark finished college.

The victory at Quail Hollow, a past and future P.G.A. Championship site, emboldened Clark. He had, he reasoned, beaten major champions on a major-tournament-caliber course.

“I just feel like I can compete with the best players in the world,” he said last week, “and I think of myself as one of them.”

Now he most certainly is.

By the time Clark waited on Sunday afternoon in the first tee box with Rickie Fowler, the other half of the Open’s final pairing and a prince of golf’s close-but-not-quite club, he had been adhering to his mother’s creed all week. He had fired a six-under-par 64 on Thursday, better than many major champions in the 156-man field, and followed it with a 67 and a 69.

It was good enough for a share of the lead heading into the final round, with Fowler and Clark both at 10 under. McIlroy, a four-time major victor mired in a nine-year drought, trailed by a shot at sunrise on Sunday. Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked player, was three back from Clark and Fowler.

Clark started the round Sunday tied with Rickie Fowler at 10 under but quickly assumed the lead.Credit…Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Clark required only four strokes to assume the lead. The first hole, with its wide fairway and a view toward the Beverly Hilton, had been one of his favored spots all through the tournament, ever since he started his Open with a putt of nearly 33 feet for eagle. He did not achieve the same feat on Sunday, but his birdie was enough to take lone control of first place after a McIlroy birdie had allowed him to snatch briefly a share of the lead.

Clark’s time on top ended swiftly, when he bogeyed the second hole for the second time this week. Fowler also slipped with a bogey, the beginning of a flameout for a player who on Thursday shot a 62, a single-round record for an Open.

Clark made a birdie on the fourth hole, the first of five par-3 tests on the course along Wilshire Boulevard, to take him to 11 under. McIlroy was at 10 under, and Fowler at 9. Scheffler, steady but not spectacular, had not changed his score in either direction.

The sixth hole had unnerved players for days, a par-4 concoction with a blind tee shot and demanding terrain. Clark had managed a birdie there on Thursday, before making par on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday afternoon, seeking a slightly larger gap between himself and everyone else, Clark stood at the tee and sent his shot soaring 266 yards. It came to rest in grass that was thick but, by the standards of some other locales on the course, not prohibitive. He cocked his head to the left, peered toward the pin about 54 feet away, looked down and swung. The ball crashed onto the green, rolling past the cup but setting up a short putt for birdie and a two-stroke lead.

It took Clark two attempts to get his ball out of a tangle of foliage on No. 8.Credit…Etienne Laurent/EPA, via Shutterstock

It was on the eighth hole where Clark’s advantage could have fully unraveled, when his second shot landed in green-vicinity foliage that looked more receptive to a scythe than a club. Clark’s first escape attempt went all of eight inches, according to tournament officials — a sum that seemed about eight inches too high. He escaped by lifting a shot over the green into the right rough and ultimately saved bogey, his lead shaved to a stroke.

Clark and McIlroy both played the front nine to 34, one under. For both, though, the back nine had typically been more bruising. Their positions on the leaderboard were static until the 14th hole, when McIlroy’s wedge shot sent his ball thumping into the side of a bunker. Granted free relief, he dropped into the fescue near the hole but could do no better than departing the green with a bogey.

Clark’s experience was far more comfortable, his second shot leaving him less than two dozen feet from the par-5 hole’s pin, setting up an eagle opportunity. Clark’s putt went just to the right of the cup, but a subsequent birdie attempt dropped, building his margin to three strokes.

It was brief. Clark missed a par chance on the 15th hole when his putt did not sufficiently break, and then his tee shot on No. 16 wound up in a bunker. Despite dazzling wedge play with his third shot, a short putt soon enough lipped out for Clark’s second consecutive bogey.

Down by a stroke, McIlroy, who struggled on the greens for much of the day, barely missed a birdie putt on the 17th hole, his familiar anguish reappearing and the prospect of the Open’s first playoff since 2008 dwindling a bit more.

Finishing at nine under, McIlroy recorded a par on the final hole, where Clark had made par or birdie during each of the first three rounds. If Clark could stick to that history, the galleries knew, he would be a major champion — just as he concluded last month he was all but ready to be.

Par, to stay at 10 under, to finish at 10 under. His eyes glistened.

He had played big.

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