LOS ANGELES — Wyndham Clark found notes. Everywhere. In his golf bag, in his gym bag, in his backpack.
His mom, Lise, left them there, sweet reminders and very much a thing that moms might do. When he was younger, he’d get embarrassed about them. Now? He’d give anything to find another.
“I know my mom is proud of me,” Clark, golf’s newest major champion, said on Sunday at Los Angeles Country Club. “She’s always been proud of me, regardless of how I’m doing or what I’m doing. I just wish she could be here and we could enjoy this. It’s been a pretty amazing week.”
Clark wasn’t the guy who was supposed to win this 123rd U.S. Open, not with such star power on the leaderboard. Sure, he was tied for the 54-hole lead at 10 under, but so was fan favorite Rickie Fowler, and Hall-of-Fame bound Rory McIlroy was just one back. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler was lurking, too, looking for his second major title.
Clark? This was just his seventh major start, his best finish a tie for 75th. No one ever thought Clark’s week would be made for Hollywood, no matter that Hollywood is, in fact, just a couple of miles from here.
But he shot even-par 70, good for 10 under on the week and a one-stroke victory over McIlroy.
Who would have believed it? For starters, Clark himself.
The national championship has been contested more than 100 times, so we know the drill by now. Thursdays at U.S. Opens are about finding your footing. Fridays are about making the weekend, and Saturdays are about survival. Sundays are about winning.
For the first 54 holes, you play for positioning; after the last 18 holes, they hand out a trophy. There’s only one person who gets it.
Clark, 29, was the guy most people probably didn’t know. But his story is magnificent and heartbreaking. There’s a rock bottom and there’s redemption. There’s doubt, acceptance and self-belief. Now, most important, this story has a resolution.
Clark grew up in Denver, Colo., where his mother introduced him to golf at age 3. He learned with and from his father, Randall, playing and practicing at Cherry Hills Country Club, won two high school state championships and played college golf at Oklahoma State.
During his first year as a Cowboy, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in 2013. Her death devastated Clark, both on and off the course. He snapped clubs and walked off mid-rounds. He had trouble focusing. His coach, seeing this play out, told him he should redshirt. Clark did, reluctantly, then after two seasons transferred to Oregon.
He turned pro in 2017, made two of eight cuts on the PGA Tour his first two years and had mixed success the past four years, making 62 percent of cuts and recording nine top 10s, his best finish a runner-up at the 2020 Bermuda Championship. He felt lost, he said, without his mother, and frustrated he couldn’t compete like he knew he could. He’d punch things and scream in his car. Sometimes, he would just drive.
“I’ve probably had three to four really defining moments in my career since college, but I’m really glad that I stuck it through,” Clark said. “And God has a plan for me, and it’s obviously far greater than I ever could have imagined.”
Entering this week he had made 18 of 21 cuts on the season — by far his most consistent stretch — with six top 10s. He won the Wells Fargo Championship (and $3.6 million) in May. He credited a new mental approach (and mental coach, Julie Elion), which he said helped him focus on the weekends. The first two tournament days were never an issue, he said, but the weekends brought anxiety. High expectations. His mind would race. But that Sunday, at Quail Hollow, he felt at ease. He woke up so early he played gin for two hours on his phone. For the first time while in contention, he was relaxed.
He didn’t even realize the win qualified him for his first Masters. In the locker room afterward, Johnny Harris, who owns Quail Hollow and is a member at Augusta National, invited Clark to play a practice round there later this year.
“Oh, s—!” Clark said, turning to caddie John Ellis. “We’re in the Masters!”
Ellis is an important character here, too. He played in two U.S. Opens himself and isn’t just employed by Clark — they are buds. He’s also a trusted eye with Clark’s swing. (Clark is one of few pros without a swing coach.) After the Wells Fargo win, Quail Hollow brass set up Clark and Ellis at the swanky Palm Charlotte. They ordered Wagyu steaks and a good bottle of wine and FaceTimed friends. They eventually caught the eye of a nearby group they later found out were members of the Villanova athletic department and boosters. They celebrated together and took shots. Swept up by their newfound friendships, Ellis donated $100 to the football program. Clark, not wanting to be one-upped by his caddie, donated $200.
Later that night, Clark and Ellis played gin for two hours. They play the card game every tournament week and keep a running score during the season. Clark was up big until Sunday night of Quail Hollow, when Ellis turned the tide. (They both won big that week.)
“John has been kind of my rock out here,” Clark said. “He’s a great caddie, and he’s had opportunities to caddie for other people and he turned it down because he wanted to be there for me. I owe a lot to him. I feel like John is meant to be my caddie, but it’s so much more than just a business relationship. We’re really close and good friends.”
Back to Sunday. One of the things Elion encouraged Clark to do was make three goals for every tournament. Here’s what he scribbled down for this week.
1. Enjoy himself on the beautiful golf course.
2. Be cocky out there.
3. Remind himself of the first two.
He said he was cocky when he hit a great shot on 6 on Friday, when he saved par on 7 and made birdie on 8. He said he was cocky when he made an important birdie on 14.
On Sunday, he had to feel cocky on 4, the tricky par-3, when he stuffed it to five feet. Or when he saved bogey after a big error on 8. You bet he felt cocky when he got up and down on 9 and fist-pumped to take a one-shot lead at the turn. Or again on 14, when his perfect second shot into the green found a small window and led to a two-putt birdie and three-shot lead.
Wyndham Clark was feeling it. On Sunday at LACC, everyone waited for the stars to run away with it. None of them did.
Fowler made bogeys on 2, 5 and 7. He hit just nine greens in regulation and stumbled even more on the back nine, with bogeys on 11 and 12 essentially ending his tournament. This was supposed to be his week to finally check off that first major title, and he had the fans on his side urging him on.
The Fowler Faithful haven’t had much to cheer over the last few years, but they, like Rickie, were out in their trademark orange on Sunday. Kids. Adults. Couples. Shorts. Shirts. Flat-brimmed Puma hats. You name it.
They are a loyal and optimistic, bunch, too. Two friends were walking to the 7th green after Fowler bogeyed the 6th. The deficit was four.
“Four shots, that’s still OK,” one said to the other, hoping for reassurance. His buddy didn’t answer him. Fowler made another bogey a few minutes later. Clark heard all the pro-Fowler noise, but he and Elion had already planned for this.
“She goes, ‘Every time you hear someone chant ‘Rickie,’ think of your goals and get cocky and go show them who you are,'” Clark said. “I did that. It was like 100-plus times today I reminded myself of the goals.”
Scheffler had a chance as well, playing in the penultimate pairing with McIlroy. But he started slowly with six straight pars, and his two late birdies weren’t enough to overcome back-to-back bogeys on 11 and 12. He shot 70.
Cameron Smith and Tommy Fleetwood, although much deeper down the leaderboard, gave it a run, too. Fleetwood shot 63 — his second time doing so in a U.S. Open — and Smith, the reigning Champion Golfer of the Year, was three under on the back nine for a 67. Still not enough. Smith finished 4th, four back; Fleetwood tied for 5th, five back.
Eventually, it was a two-horse race: Clark, who entered the week with 70-to-1 odds, vs. McIlroy, one of the most famous golfers in the world and a superstar trying desperately to claim his fifth major title after an unthinkable nine-year drought.
The last hour was some of the best theater a professional golf tournament has offered in some time. McIlroy and Clark were the Hollywood headliners.
The back nine played significantly harder this week and was a stroke and a half more difficult on Sunday. Clark made his first bogey of the back side on the par-3 15th, over-shooting the green and failing to get up and down. Two-shot lead.
An hour earlier, Clark played a monster cut on the par-4 12th that found the middle of the fairway — he ranked second in strokes gained: off the tee and second in diving distance — for one of his best drives of the day. On 16, the same shot didn’t cut. He was hung up on the lip of a fairway bunker. On the green ahead, McIlroy rolled in a seven-foot par putt to stay at nine under.
Clark had to lay up out of the bunker but did well to wedge it to seven feet, but his par attempt caught the right lip and he made bogey. One-shot lead.
McIlroy had missed the fairway so badly on 17 he actually went into the 2nd fairway, from where he found the back fringe and two-putted for par. It was a good but frustrating round for McIlroy, who birdied the opening hole but didn’t make another. He made 12 straight pars from Nos. 2-13. The longest putt he made all day was just seven feet, three inches.
“Overall when you’re in contention going into the final round of a U.S. Open, I played the way I wanted to play,” McIlroy said. “There was just a couple of shots, two or three shots over the course of the round that I’d like to have back.”
McIlroy stepped to the 18th tee down one, but the 502-yard par-4 had allowed just four birdies all day. A birdie was likely needed to force a playoff, and behind him Clark was leaking oil. After bogeys on 15 and 16, Clark’s approach into 17 was pulled well left, but he chipped it to kick-in range — perhaps his most important shot of the day — and saved par.
Up ahead, McIlroy’s approach found the left side of the green, 41 feet away. He two-putted, as his birdie try never scared the hole.
Clark stood on the 18th tee box needing a par to win the U.S. Open.
A few strangers approached Clark this week. They showed him pictures of his mother, their friend, back when she was in her 20s and early 30s. His mom lived in Los Angeles for a few years and his parents were married just seven miles away at another L.A. golf institution, Riviera Country Club.
Clark said on Thursday, when he shot 64, he caught himself smiling. In his previous two U.S. Opens, he had missed the cut. This time? He was headed the other direction.
“I go, ‘Man, I wish you could be here, Mom, because it’s a dream come true to be doing this at the highest level in front of friends and family that are out here,” he said. “Yeah, I wish she could be here.”
One of the last messages she told her son was “play big,” not just in golf, but in life. That was her mantra.
On the 18th tee, with the sun beginning its descent, Clark hit a huge cut — almost too big — but still found the right side of the fairway; you can’t miss fairways on the North Course — it’s a death sentence. His approach from 197 yards thumped onto the front of the green, 60 feet and two putts away from the biggest moment of his life.
McIlroy loosened his hat and walked to scoring. A bogey and he’d be in a playoff. He didn’t give his ball away to a lucky fan. He might need it again.
Clark walked to the green as fans rushed in behind him for an intimate 72nd-hole viewing party. It was chaotic for a second, and then pin-drop quiet. Clark rolled his putt hole-high, 17 inches away. The tap-in was a formality.
It was over. Play big.
When the putt disappeared, Clark fist-pumped and the emotion poured out. He hugged his caddie and gin partner Ellis, then, sobbing, buried his head in his hat. Next up were family members. He embraced them all and they cried. His brother. Sister. Girlfriend. More friends on his way to scoring. It was a coronation.
Fowler also congratulated him. “Your mom was with you,” he said. “She’d be very proud.”
Clark thought so too.
“You know, my mom was — she was so positive and such a motivator in what she did,” Clark said Sunday night, the silver U.S. Open trophy at his side. “She’d be crying tears of joy. She called me winner when I was little, so she would just say, ‘I love you, Winner.'”