Wyndham Clark’s US Open win on Father’s Day is also a tribute to his late mom
|Published: 06-19-2023 6:17 PM
LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Open wrapped up, as it always does, on Father’s Day. Golf’s newest champion would be the first to tell people he’s always been a mama’s boy.
Wyndham Clark’s victory Sunday will be remembered for how a 29-year-old newcomer to the big time held off some of the biggest names in the game to stamp a poignant exclamation mark on a U.S. Open that had been, to that point, kind of hard to love.
Clark’s mother, Lise, died of breast cancer in 2013 — a family tragedy that sent him spiraling. The win brought with it a chance to share memories, and a chance to reflect on the long road between then and now.
“I didn’t show any emotion off the course, but when I was on the golf course I couldn’t have been angrier,” Clark said of his state of mind when he first learned of his mom’s diagnosis. “I was breaking clubs when I didn’t even hit that bad of a shot. I was walking off golf courses.”
The road back led him to leave college at Oklahoma State for a fresh start at Oregon. It involved a relatively quick rise for an aspiring pro golfer, but one pushed off course by typical slumps and close calls that led to more than one crisis in confidence.
“I’ve had many times where I’ve gone home and was yelling in my car and punching things and just so mad that I’m like, ‘Why can’t I do what my peers are doing?’” Clark said.
Through it all, he kept in mind what his mother used to tell him about his golf game: Play big.
“She called me ‘Winner’ when I was little, so she would just say, ‘I love you, Winner,’” Clark said.
Becoming a winner Sunday meant holding off the first- and third-ranked players in the world: Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler. All three leaders shot even-par 70 in the final round. Clark’s 70 was good enough to beat McIlroy by one and Scheffler by three.
“I guess you’re just hoping for the other guy to slip up or make a mistake or give you a glimmer of hope,” McIlroy said. “Wyndham was pretty much rock-solid all day.”
Clark stayed cool when trouble beckoned as it always does at what’s known as golf’s most exacting test, even when it isn’t. He saved bogey after whiffing his third shot from the heavy greenside rough on the par-5 eighth. He made an up-and-down par save on No. 9 from a knee-high lie in the rough.
He hit big shots under pressure, nailing a 228-yard fairway metal to 20 feet to set up birdie for a three-shot lead over McIlroy on the par-5 14th. Then, with his lead down to one, he hit the green from 200 yards on No. 18 and two-putted from 60 feet to seal the deal.
“An up-and-coming star,” his caddie and onetime assistant coach at Oregon, John Ellis, called him. “If he wasn’t one before, he is one now. First time he has actually competed in a major for a chance to win and he shows he can handle the heat.”
Clark handled Los Angeles Country Club, a first-time host that he got an early look at thanks to a friend who is a member and who invited Clark over for a round about a week before the show came to town.
Not everyone loved this place.
The U.S. Open’s first return to Los Angeles in 75 years got roundly criticized for its small galleries, its wide-but-crooked fairways, its blind tee shots and an overall feeling that it did not live up to the U.S. Open’s exacting standards.
There were two record rounds of 62 (Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele) on opening day and a 63 that felt ho-hum (Tommy Fleetwood) on Sunday.
There were two record-tying nine-hole scores of 29 (Tom Kim on Saturday, Austin Eckroat on Sunday).
Fowler, who shared the third-round lead with Clark, needed only 62 holes to tie a U.S. Open record with 22 birdies, but he did nothing over the final 10 holes to get back into the hunt.
The four-day scoring average was 71.76, which broke the record for a tournament that dates to 1895.
Even Clark was less than pleased after the third round, which ended in near darkness — a scheduling call that placed the weekend action on prime-time TV on the East Coast.
The Denver native said playing in the dark reminded him of when he was a kid and he would practice in the twilight at Cherry Hills Country Club — the course where Arnold Palmer put the U.S. Open in the American conscience with his stirring comeback in 1960.
Cherry Hills and Denver have another champion to celebrate. Clark’s win came six days after the Nuggets wrapped up the NBA title.
But the action was in LA on Sunday. With the sun setting on the year’s third major, Clark had nothing to gripe about. He was near the 18th green holding the trophy and taking pictures — with his caddie, Ellis, and also his sister, his girlfriend and dozens more friends and family who have been along for this ride.
All in all, a perfect way to celebrate Father’s Day.
Well, almost perfect.
“All I really wish is that my mom could be here and I could just hug her and we could celebrate together,” Clark said “But I know she’s proud of me.”