The stage was set on the North Course at The Los Angeles Country Club: Four players started Sunday squarely in the Round 4 mix to win the 123rd U.S. Open Championship – world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, fan favorite Rickie Fowler, returned from a long hiatus in golf limbo… and Wyndham Clark.
Clark, 29, was surely the least recognizable man in the maelstrom that is U.S. Open Sunday, but he was more accomplished than many fans knew. The Denver, Colo., native’s late mother, Lise Thevenet, had introduced him to the game, dubbed him “Winner” and encouraged him to “play big.” He floundered for a time after she lost her battle with breast cancer in 2013, but he kept her mantra close as he transferred colleges, found his footing and slowly worked his way up the ranks of professional golf.
Just six weeks ago, Clark captured his first PGA Tour title, the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C. This followed struggles that included missing 24 cuts over the 2019-20 and 2020-21 PGA Tour seasons, and no victories to show for four solid but unspectacular years on Tour.
“Winning Wells was huge for me because I had some people in my ear, saying, ‘What if something greater is going to happen’ [when he suffered defeats in the past],” said Clark. “I honestly think I should have won the Memorial Tournament just a few weeks ago, and Viktor [Hovland] played great, but I was right there in contention and had a chance and kind of fumbled at the end [going on to finish 12th].
“In the back of my mind I said, well, what if this is saving me for something greater. Obviously I didn’t know it was going to be a U.S. Open, but I just had that attitude and belief that something better was going to happen. It did.”
Clark’s one-stroke victory over McIlroy was a testament to his resilience and a dramatic improvement in his iron play. He has vaulted from 163rd in strokes gained approach to 13th in the past year, all while going against conventional Tour wisdom in eschewing the use of a swing coach.
“My first few years on Tour, people would say, ‘You have such a great swing,’ but I didn't know where the ball was going, and that was really frustrating for me,” said Clark, who earned Pac-12 player of the year honors at Oregon. “I worked with some great coaches and they’re very good at what they do, but I didn’t know where the ball was going and I didn’t own it.
“When I decided to go on my own – I work a little bit with my caddie, but typically it’s on my own – I learned about my game and my swing, and that’s what I did when I was younger. I knew how to hit shots and I got away from that when I was with a coach.”
As Clark edged slightly ahead of McIlroy and the other contenders struggled coming down the stretch, he found himself in situations typical for someone attempting to close out a maiden major victory. On the par-5 eighth, Clark barely missed the green with his second shot, but the ball ended up lodged precariously on the bank of the barranca. Clark barely moved it on his first try, then made sure not to leave the second effort in the same predicament. From there, he got up and down for what could be termed a “good” bogey. He followed that up with a stellar par save from the fescue to the left of the green on the par-3 ninth.
“U.S. Opens are tough, and unfortunately I had a bad lie on 8,” said Clark. “Honestly that up-and-down for bogey was probably the key to the tournament that kept me in it, and that up-and-down on 9 was huge. I just felt like I bounced back and kept my emotions about me.”
Throughout the weekend, Clark refused to let minor stumbles turn into a spiral that would jeopardize his chances. His bounce-back capabilities first came to the fore on Saturday, when he played in the final pairing of a major for the first time. He followed bogeys on Nos. 11 and 12 with a birdie on the 13th hole, and after Clark scrambled for another “good” bogey on No. 17, he made a club-twirling, statement approach shot on No. 18 that set up a birdie, ensuring he would join Fowler again on Sunday. That pairing undoubtedly helped Clark’s comfort level, as the two had gotten to know each other when Clark attended Oklahoma State, Fowler’s alma mater, before transferring to Oregon.
“I hit some great shots coming down at the end, and although I made a couple bogeys and it seemed like maybe the rails were coming off, inside I was pretty calm,” said Clark, who called his 280-yard second shot into the par-5 14th that set up a two-putt birdie “the shot of the week for me.” That gave him a three-stroke cushion with four holes to play, and though his advantage was whittled by two late bogeys, he was able to close it out.
Clark finished the week second in strokes gained off the tee (+1.36), fourth in strokes gained putting (+1.81), and seventh in strokes gained short game (+0.98), but there was a point not too long ago when he wondered whether his game would ever bring him a PGA Tour victory, much less a major.
“I had a lot of chances where I was within two or three shots, and I always seemed to fall short,” he said after his win at the Wells Fargo in May. “There were times when I was so frustrated with people in my camp, and I was like, let’s just stop talking about it, because I didn’t want to think about it. I said, maybe that’s just not in the cards for me.”
Now he is the fifth consecutive winner of the U.S. Open to make the championship his first major victory. It would seem foolish to bet against him coming through again.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.