By Tim Liotta
Upon closer inspection, Wyndham Clark was no surprise
Wyndham Clark grabbed hold of the 123rd U.S. Open on Saturday evening with his final 9-iron shot from 142 yards into the twilight. He never let go.
Clark's dart into the dark landed some two feet from the hole, and left him with a six-foot, left-to-right delicate putt that he drained for a spot in Sunday's final group.
"Every shot matters out here," Clark said afterwards. "... It's a U.S. Open and I wanted to be in that final group"
In that final group on Sunday, Clark tightened his grip on what would play out to be his first major championship - edging out Rory McIlroy by a shot - with three birdies over the first six holes, including whistling 6-iron to six feet on the 233-yard par-3 fourth.
Clark hit shots big and small, shots that made a difference. A hack out of the thick stuff on 6 led to birdie, and it took two hacks out of the shrubbery to salvage a bogey on 8. Another chip out of the tough stuff on 9 for a par save kept the momentum going.
"Honestly, that up-and-down for bogey was probably the key to the tournament that kept me in it," said Clark, "and that up-and-down on 9 was huge."
And no shot was bigger than the one on the 612-yard, par-5 14th, when he threaded his approach from 282 yards into a narrow opening less than eight paces wide, setting up a two-putt birdie.
"That shot on 14 was kind of the shot of the week I feel like for me to make a birdie there, and then grind it on the way in," Clark said.
Compare that to McIlroy's 14th hole, which saw him hook his drive into the rough, be forced to lay up, and then hit a 125-yard wedge shot that embedded just above the front bunker. After getting a drop, he hit a pedestrian chipped that left him a 10-footer that he missed for his only bogey of the day.
Judging from Clark's play the last few months, golf fans should not be surprised that he didn't flinch on Sunday.
Since the second week of February, the PGA Tour ran out nine tournaments that were either elevated events, the Players Championship or a Major Championship, each boasting a purse of $18,000,000 or more.
Major champions Jon Ralm (two), Scottie Scheffler (two) and Brooks Koepka (one) combined to win five. Matt Fizpatrick, the 2022 U.S. Open champion, and Sam Burns, a six-time tour winner, each won one.
The other two? One was won by Kurt Kitayama, who edged McIlroy by a shot at the Arnold Palmer Invitational; the other was Clark's four-shot victory in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, where he outplayed Xander Schauffele over the tournament's final nine holes.
"It's an elevated event with some of the best players in the world," said Clark who added three top-6 finishes and a T-12 at the Memorial over his previous eight starts, not to mention making 19 of 22 cuts this seasons.
"That's a major championship golf course, and it demands a lot of the same things this does and a U.S. Open would demand, which is all parts of your game being on.
"For me, winning any tournament was big, and then that one in particular felt like a major. I just feel like I can compete with the best players in the world and I think of myself as one of them."
The 2022-23 season has been Clark's fifth on on the PGA Tour, and it's been a period where he's felt his made strides along the way, especially the last few months.
"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," he said. "I felt like I've shown that this year.
"I've come up close, and obviously everyone sees the person that hoists the trophy, but 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."
When it comes to working on his game, Clark has made himself accountable for his results.
"I believe I have a good swing," he said. "My first few years on tour it actually really bothered me because people would say, oh, you have such a great swing, and I didn't know where the ball was going, and that was really frustrating for me.
"I worked with some great coaches and they were very good at what they do, but I didn't know where the ball was going and I didn't own it.
"So when I decided to go on my own - I do work a little bit with my caddie, but typically it's on my own - I learned about my game and my swing, and that's what I did when I was younger. I knew how to hit shots and I got away from that when I was with a coach.
"Now when I'm in practice, I'm always trying to get back to neutral. So if one day it's really cutty I'm hitting huge draws on the range. And then some days it gets kind of too dry and I hit huge cuts and get it back to neutral, and honestly that's what I've done for the last year and a half ... and my stats have improved immensely by doing that.
Clark has risen to 25th on tour in Strokes Gained: Approach so far this year, up from 173rd a year ago, and 188th in 2020-21.
"I think it's a combination of an equipment change, an adjustment on the lie angles of my clubs. I did it about a year and a half ago. I adjusted my irons 3 degrees upright from being relatively flat to more upright," Clark said.
"And then I'm working on my own on the my golf swing, so it's myself and my caddie pretty much monitor my golf swing. I don't have a swing coach. That's helped me own my swing and own my game.
"And so when I'm out there, if it doesn't feel right I at least know what to do. I think in the past I was too reliant on someone telling me what to do that I didn't own it."
With his game trending in the right direction, Clark spent the Tuesday that the PGA Tour announced its controversial decision to partner with the Saudi backers of the LIV Tour.
"I came in on Tuesday of last week, played a practice round with a buddy of mine and he showed me around, and I felt like there was a lot of holes that fit my eye, and I liked the greens, and I loved the design of the golf course, which usually I play good on courses where I feel comfortable and I like the design of it," he said.
"There's a lot of creativity out there, so if you get in trouble, there's some holes where you've really got to be creative and have some fun, and I typically like doing that."
The North Course at Los Angeles Country Club is a course that not many of the players in the field have had a lot of experience playing, so the subject of his reconnaisance trip nine days prior to the tournament came up again on Friday after his second round.
"I came out with my good buddy, PJ (Fielding, who Clark estimates he's known 6-7 years). He's a member out here. He's a good player and he really knows the golf course," said Clark. "That 18 holes was the equivalent of probably playing 27 to 36 because I was able to - he was telling me how certain putts - how they break, how this one is faster than this, this plays this way. If you're here, you want to go - he was spot on. ...
"I asked him last week if I could come in and play and if he would caddie for me, and he was up for it. I mean, he really knew the golf course. A lot of times when you take out a local caddie, sometimes they give you the information that you can see and you already know, but he had some really good insights on putts and speeds of putts and also how the fairways when they get really firm they do this and you've got to be here and lines off the tee."
Clark even turned his pairing with Rickie Fowler, who had the crowds pulling for him throughout the tournament, into a positive.
"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," he said.
"My mental coach, Julie (Elion), 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."