Scene Stealer! Unheralded Wyndham Clark Wins Hollywood U.S. Open at L.A. Country Club
—by Jay Flemma, Golf News Net—
LOS ANGELES, CA – Quick! We need rewrites to the script! A bit player stole the show in Hollywood! 29-year old Wyndham Clark, unheralded before the tournament began, outlasted four-time major champion Rory McIlroy at Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course to win the 123rd U.S. Open Championship. Clark’s 10-under score-to-par held off McIlroy by a single shot and was the fifth-lowest score-to-par in U.S. Open history. World Number 1 golfer Scottie Scheffeler finished third at 7-under while popular star Ricky Fowler, who led or was tied for the lead almost the entire tournament, spit the bit completely carding a ghastly 75 and fading to a tie for fifth.
Clark and McIlroy both fired even par 70s on Sunday, but in completely different ways. McIlroy, playing in front of Clark and Fowler, played immaculate golf tee to green, but made absolutely nothing on the greens, his putter again treating him like a jilted lover on a championship Sunday, as it did during the final round of last year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews. McIlroy hit 15 of 18 greens but took a devastating 36 putts – a hacker stat, nowhere near the level expected of a professional golfer. And over the course of the tournament McIlroy led the field in Greens in Reg, a whopping 82% for the week.
If McIlroy could have putted this week, especially Sunday, he’d have won in a runaway. And not for nothing, his 271 aggregate is the lowest score ever posted by someone who was runner-up.
Meanwhile, Clark was putting on a recovery and short game clinic. He hit tee shots seemingly to Inglewood, Encino, and Koreatown, yet he’d get up-and-down from Century City, Echo Park, and Hermosa Beach.
And while the shot of the tournament was the 3-wood he hit on 14 to reach the par-5 green in two and secure his final birdie that proved the margin of victory, it was an up-and-down bogey from the deck of a sinking ship at the eighth hole that saved the round and the tournament for Clark.
Clark had nursed a one-shot lead to that point, with birdies at one and four against one bogey at two. McIlroy was still behind by one stroke after a birdie at the first hole, but a horrifying missed short putt at eight failed to pull him into a tie.
Knowing that a birdie would increase the lead to two, Clark went for the par-5 green in two, but missed. The ball settled in high rough under a bush. Clark tried to hit it out, but his club went under the ball, and the ball barely moved.
“There!” shouted some naysayers nearby, who were openly rooting for McIlroy and against Clark. “There’s the mistake we’ve been waiting for. He’s gonna blow up now. Goodbye!”
But it wasn’t “Goodbye.,” There was no “blow up.” This is Hollywood, and the miraculous ending was not to be scuttled. From another insidiously difficult lie, playing sideways to the hole, Clark hit the shot that saved his Open. The pitch came out clean, bounced to the edge of a ridge, and then like an obedient dog wanting a treat, trickled down the slope until it nestled six feet from the cup. He saved bogey when seven or even eight could have been in the offing.
Even Brandel Chamblee couldn’t believe that shot. His TV call told the world the shot was terrible and going nowhere near the hole. Brandel needed a rewrite too.
“I thought I could get the original shot up-and-down. The tough thing was the bush that was near where the ball was, if you’re playing a money game, you step it out of the way and I get that up-and-down. But obviously the cameras are here and I don’t want to cheat and do anything wrong, so we made sure we brought the rules official in,” Clark remarked later.
As an aside, Your Author does NOT recommend “stepping it out of the way” in a money game. Cheaters in golf should be shot on general principle. Please just chalk up that quote from Clark as post-victory euphoria and enthusiasm. But back to the shot on eight:
“Going under that ball obviously was the worst-case scenario….But I’ve learned from a lot of mistakes I’ve made, and so has my caddie, John, and he said Hey, Dub, we’re fine. We’re just got to get this up-and-down and we’re fine. It’s no big deal.’ We got my wits about me and I got that up-and-down. Obviously, that’s momentum.”
The other critical point was at the par-5 14th, where a McIlroy bogey and a Clark birdie increased the former Oklahoma State All-American’s lead to three. It was a birdie he needed, because he bogeyed both the short par-3 15th (the only player in the field to do so on Sunday) and the long par-416th before carding two difficult pars coming home. His 60-foot lag putt to within ten inches of the hole cinching the title in the clutch for golf’s newest star.
“I feel like I belong on this stage, and even two, three years ago when people didn’t know who I was, I felt like I could still play and compete against the best players in the world. I felt like I’ve shown that this year,” he stated, basking in the post-victory afterglow. “I’ve been trending in the right direction for a long time now. I’ve made a lot of cuts. I’ve had a handful of top 10s and top 20s, and I feel like I’ve been on a great trajectory to get to this place…I feel like I’m one of the best players in the world. Obviously, this just shows what I believe can happen.”
And that’s also despite what every naysayer was going to happen. Those sports fans next to me predicting his demise with every wayward shot need a rewrite too. Clark was pooh-poohed by every so-called “expert,” who predicted he’d fold like a gun-metal grey chair. Yes, his win was a surprise – this was the first time that Clark has made the cut at the U.S. Open. And over the last 100 years he is just the fourth player to win the U.S. Open the first time he made the cut, joining: Lucas Glover (2009), Lee Janzen (1993) and Orville Moody (1969).
But while that’s not a murder’s row line-up – none of them were Tour superstars – not only did Clark win the Wells Fargo a few short weeks ago at Quail Hollow, another difficult course with a gargantuan, danger-filled finishing stretch, Clark ranked in the top five in both Strokes Gained Off the Tee (2nd) and Strokes Gained Putting (4th). Prior to this week, Clark played in 69 measured tournaments, and he finished in the top 10 in both categories one time. That was at the 2022 Farmers Insurance Open (9th, 1st) where he finished T-56.
Meanwhile poor Rory is a bridesmaid again, his major championship drought in its tenth year; his last win being the 2014 PGA at Valhalla in Kentucky.
“I’m not doing a lot wrong, but I didn’t make a birdie since the first hole today….[For] the final round of a U.S. Open, I played the way I wanted to play. There was just a couple of shots, two or three shots over the course of the round that I’d like to have back,” he lamented. “The putt on the 8th hole and the wedge shot on 14….I thought I did really well at executing my game plan, hitting a lot of fairways, hitting a lot of greens, again, what you should do at a U.S. Open. If anything, I felt like over the last two days when the greens started to get quite crispy that my speed control was off a little bit, and I think that’s the reason I didn’t hole a lot of putts. I don’t think I was hitting bad putts; just hitting them just with slightly the wrong speed. Some were coming up short, some were going a little long.
But then, commenting that prep for the Open Championship started “three minutes ago,” he came back to his old confident, yet stoic and resolute self.
“When I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet. I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”
But for now, a new star is born. This marks the third year in a row that the U.S. Open champion won his first career major, doing so by one shot over a minted major champion. Matthew Fitzpatrick won by one shot over Scottie Scheffler (and Will Zalatoris) last year; Jon Rahm won in 2021 by one shot over Louis Oosthuizen in 2021. Fitzpatrick and Rahm have risen to star power status, and now Clark, who has been steadily rising to this point, has reached a pinnacle. And even if he never wins another tournament in his life, Tinsel Town got its real-life golf miracle. And that’s better than any script could deliver.