Taco talk and a gamble: How Wyndham Clark survived pure chaos to win the U.S. Open
LOS ANGELES — Time for tacos!
It’s about quarter after 2 here on Sunday afternoon, at Los Angeles Country Club, and Wyndham Clark is alllll the way to the left on the driving range, going through his bag, carefully maneuvering shots around an overhanging tree branch about 100 yards out and to his left. John Ellis is there. He’s his caddie and one of his former college coaches at Oregon. Julie Elion is there. She’s a renowned mental coach who joined the squad this year. She’s wearing a white sweater with the word “GOLF” stitched in black across the front. The mood is fun.
Fun. There are maybe 15 minutes left until Clark marches up a winding hill, past the stately white LACC clubhouse and puts a peg into the ground on hole one with a share of the final-round lead at the United States freaking Open. But the conversation at the range is about Mexican food.
“We were talking about tacos,” Elion says, hours later.
Really? What about tacos?
“Opening a taco restaurant.”
Is that right, Wyndham?
“We were talking about anything but golf, actually,” he says. “We were talking about traveling. We were talking about the beautiful homes out here.”
Of course, there was a method to the un-madness here. Here’s another way to dissect Sunday: It’s a major! Clark’s never won one of these! On the PGA Tour, he’s won once, period, last month at the Wells Fargo! He’s tied with Rickie Fowler! Rory McIlroy is lurking! Scottie Scheffler, too! Oye. Clark says you can get tunnel vision here, so you need to “be like, hey, this is just like any other day; I’ve done this a thousand times.” So let’s gamble! Before he and Ellis leave the range, they each grab a ball and wager who can throw it closer to the hole on a nearby practice green.
A most serene start, to a most chaotic day, one that almost improbably ended with Clark on top of the golf world.
We’re at the 6th. Clark now leads McIlroy by one. But this is not fun! On the 316-yard par-4, Clark has covered most of it with his tee shot, but not all of it. He’s in the cabbage ahead of the green. A day earlier, with a similar lie on a different hole, he advanced his ball about the length of a tee.
Sunday, he pitches to 2 feet, birdies, and the lead is two.
We’re at the 8th now. But this is not fun! On the 524-yard par-5, Clark has covered most of it with two shots, but not all of it. His ball has kicked into the barranca left of the green, into a thick shrub. On stroke three, he swings and, for all intents and purposes, misses. He shouts. Stroke four sends his ball over the green.
But he pitches to a few feet, bogeys, and he still leads.
“Yeah, I thought I could get the original shot up-and-down,” Clark said. “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. The tough thing was I couldn’t see where I was hitting. The lie was not bad, but I couldn’t see. Going under that ball obviously was the worst-case scenario, and then I hit the next one. I didn’t even know where it went.
“But in that moment, my mind started going fast, but the good thing is I’ve done things like that in the past. 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. Even though I made a bogey and it looked like I should have made a birdie or par, making bogey there didn’t kill me and kept me in the tournament.”
We’re at the 9th now. This is not fun! On the 155-yard, par-3, Clark has covered most of it with his tee shot, but not all of it. He’s sitting in the thick stuff left of the green. He pitches past the flag.
But wait! It rolls back, to 7 feet. Brilliant. He makes that. He fist-pumps. He still leads by one.
We’re at the par-3 15th now. A hole earlier was fun — McIlroy bogeyed and Clark birdied and his lead was three — but this is not! Clark bogeys. His lead is two. We’re at the par-4 16th now. This is not fun! On his tee shot, Clark is in a fairway bunker, toward the front. He makes the safe play and just gets out, advancing the ball about 50 yards, but from there, he bogeys. His lead is one.
Sense the theme, yet?
To the left of the 16th fairway, after his second shot, Elion smiles.
“I was just mirroring back that he had what he needed basically.”
We’re at 17 tee now. There are cheers ahead as McIlroy is approaching the green. And here the fun must truly die, right? One-shot lead. Two-straight bogeys. Two holes to go. At a U.S. Open.
Afterward, he’s asked maybe the question:
How tough is that?
“The hardest thing,” Clark says.
“This is where the game is so mental because your mind starts to race. Obviously you turn and it’s like, man, I should be at 12 or 13 and I should have a two-, three-shot lead. Then I’m almost eagling, birdie 14, it’s like I’ve got a three-shot lead. All I’ve got to do is coast in and then you make a couple bogeys. So it’s so mental because you have to keep your mind so present. The minute you get ahead or behind, you feel like you make mistakes, especially at this level. It’s more mentally tough than anything, but I feel like if you just stay within yourself, you can pull off the shots that you need to.
“John and I, we’re trying to keep it light. Fortunately I was walking with Rickie and his caddie, Ricky, and they’re such class acts and great guys, and they were also trying to keep it light the last couple holes, which just gets your mind away from it just for a quick second. So that really helped.”
John, what say you? What was your man possibly thinking?
“He was probably racing a little bit. Trying to hit that fairway, right. We’ve only hit that fairway — we hit it yesterday, missed it left the other two days.
“He stepped up and pounded one.”
Indeed. What followed next was masterful.
On 17, he finds the fairway, pulls an 8-iron left, chips on to a foot and pars. He nods to Ellis. “We found out Rory made par [on 18],” the caddie says. “I just kept reminding him that they have to beat us and we’re ahead still.”
We’re at 18 tee now. Par wins. Bogey is a playoff. Double bogey is death. If this is fun, you’re sick. Afterward, after a reporter wonders about the aforementioned names around Clark and whether he was flying under the radar a bit, Clark talks about names being shouted — and that’s relevant because they’re about to call for him.
“Yeah, I guess it’s nice being the underdog,” he said. “It was great walking by hearing a lot of people chant for Rickie’s name because it kind of fueled the fire underneath me that I could do it. My mental coach, Julie, told me, she goes, every time you hear someone chant, ‘Rickie,’ think of your goals and get cocky and go show them who you are. 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.”
Indeed. What followed next won him the tournament.
Drive down the right side of the fairway, though he can’t see it; the setting sun blinds him, and he turns almost immediately to his right.
Second shot to the front of the green.
“Oh, the walk up 18,” Ellis said. “I wish it was a little closer, but it was amazing. It was amazing.”
One putt to 17 inches.
Seventeen inches for the win.
He double fist-pumps.
He and Ellis bear-hug so tightly you feel it. Ellis walks away.
Clark covers his face with his white hat. His team rushes to the green.
Afterward, Clark is making the rounds — card signing, trophy presentation, main press interview, trophy pictures on the 10th tee, Golf Channel interview. But really all we need to do here is find his team again from quarter past 2.
John, why now?
“I think he’s been playing good golf. I truly believe that. And his good golf is pretty good.”
Julie, why now?
“I think Wells Fargo, the win there really showed him he could do it. So he showed up here feeling like a champion. Yeah.”
She and I then start walking back to the clubhouse. She tells another friend about the ensuing party. She says she may have to change for that.