LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA | The way the story goes, a 29-year-old guy named Wyndham Clark who more than once tried literally to drive himself away from golf because he hated it so much and who has lived for a decade with the ache of losing his mother, carried her memory with him on Father’s Day and won the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club in a city built largely on its gift for finding tales that touch places that can bring teardrops.
How’s that for a storyline?
Golf’s newest major champion may not have the magnetism of Rickie Fowler nor the majesty of Rory McIlroy, but he won the American national championship by being the best player over four grinding days, making good on a promise to himself and others that he has what it takes to do what he did.
When Clark closed out this U.S. Open, he leaned over and shouted, “Yes!” loud enough to be heard in the heavens. He walked into an embrace with his caddie and confidante John Ellis, burying his sobs in the man’s shoulders.
Then came Clark’s family, one by one, all but his late mother, Lise Clark, whom he honors by carrying a ball marker with the image of praying hands, her enduring message to “play big” and the date Aug. 2, 2013, when she died at age 55 of breast cancer.
The moment, a lifetime in the making, touched a place that no amount of time can bury.
“She was so positive and such a motivator in what she did,” Clark said of his mother. “She’d be crying tears of joy.
“She called me ‘Winner’ when I was little, so she would just say, ‘I love you, Winner.’ She had that mantra of ‘play big.’ But really, I was a mama's boy, so there would be a lot of hugging and crying together. But I know she’d be very proud of me.”
Clark may not have been the people’s choice, given whom he had to beat in the final round, but he won the silver trophy by grabbing it, not letting it fall to him.
Wyndham Clark sounds like a cowboy actor from the ’50s and he walks as if he’s going toward something rather than away from something. He spent Sunday doing what U.S. Open winners do, hitting good shot after good shot and, when he found himself in bad spots such as a tangle of barranca brush beside the eighth green, Clark managed to minimize the damage.
It didn’t come easily because U.S. Opens don’t do easy. Clark wobbled with a break-the-momentum bogey at the short, par-3 15th (the only bogey anyone made there Sunday), then threw a knot in his stomach when he hit his tee shot into a fairway bunker at the 16th when his left-to-right cut didn’t cut, setting up a bogey that left him one stroke ahead with two holes to play.
With McIlroy playing the final hole and close enough to touch a fifth major-championship victory that has eluded him since 2014, Clark saved par with a brilliant pitch shot at the 17th and then closed in style, playing uphill into a setting sun that gleamed like a spotlight.
How hard was winning?
“The hardest thing,” Clark said.
When he heard fans chanting Fowler’s name as they walked from shot to shot, Clark fed on it. His mental coach had told him to channel those chants and think of his own goals.
“I did that. It was like 100-plus times today I reminded myself of the goals. Now maybe they'll be chanting my name in the future,” Clark said.
After signing for a disappointing 75 in the final round, Fowler sought out his friend with whom he shared the 54-hole lead.
“I went back in there and just said your mom was with you. She’d be very proud,” Fowler said.
Nearby, McIlroy was dealing with another near-miss in a major. The “Rory, Rory, Rory” chants that floated across the property Sunday afternoon ultimately faded away on the breeze.
Needing a misstep by Clark on the final hole to get into a playoff, McIlroy didn’t get it.
“You don’t want to wish bad on anyone, but you’re hoping for a three-putt,” said McIlroy, who will long rue the bogey that he made at the par-5 14th hole when he plugged a wedge shot into the wall of a grass-faced bunker and got relief, only to fail to save par.
“You’re rooting for one guy at that point,” McIlroy said, “and that guy is yourself.”
If McIlroy, who fell one maddening stroke shy of Clark’s 10-under-par 270 winning score, is ice cream and Fowler is cake, Clark is more like a meat and three-vegetable plate, satisfying in its own way.
A little more than a month ago, Clark outplayed Xander Schauffele to win the Wells Fargo Championship, a designated event speckled with stars, to introduce himself properly. At LACC, with its blind tee shots and barrancas, Clark redefined himself.
“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,” Clark said.
If there is a secret to winning U.S. Opens, it may be as much about what a player doesn’t do as what he does. Don’t make triple bogeys like Schauffele did at the 10th hole Sunday. Don’t make a quadruple bogey like Dustin Johnson did on the second hole Friday morning, mistakes that put them on the outside looking in Sunday afternoon.
Seduction might work in movies, but it creates all kinds of trouble in the U.S. Open. Clark played smart golf, picking his spots at the right time.
Low scores were out there – Tommy Fleetwood shot 63 after flirting with something lower while Jon Rahm and Austin Eckroat signed for 65s Sunday – but those were posted on the perimeter of the championship, not in its epicenter.
Clark’s closing 70 was as good as any player in the final three groups shot Sunday. Not what many might have expected from a player who had missed four cuts in his six previous major championships and claimed a T75 at the 2021 PGA Championship as his best major finish.
It was as simple as Clark staying true to himself, trusting in years of work that put him in the lead of the U.S. Open on the back nine on Sunday.
Sometimes a person finds his moment. Sometimes the moment finds the person.
Sometimes they arrive together.
That’s how it happened for Wyndham Clark once upon a time in Hollywood.
Top: His first major title brings Wyndham Clark to a tearful remembrance of his late mother.
Jeff haynes, USGA