Who could be the next major championship surprise?
11 Jul,2023

By Tim Liotta


Who could be the next major championship surprise?

As the golf calendar turns to 2023's final major championship, the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool next, who out there stands poised to become the game's next Wyndham Clark? 

A surprising winner of the 123rd U.S. Open last month, Clark fought off pre-tournament favorites Scottie Scheffler (third) and Cameron Smith (fourth), not to mention the resurgent Rickie Fowler (second) for his first major championship victory. 


A fifth-year PGA Tour pro, Clark's record in six previous major championships showed little, however, his name started appearing on leaderboards early in the '22-23 season, and he capped his rise by winning his first PGA Tour event in March. 

Since last November, the 29-year-old had posted a pair of top-10s, then finished fifth at the Valspar Championship, sixth in an opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic, and third at a team event in New Orleans. Then came his breakthrough - a four-shot victory at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club - an elevated event in March boasting a $20 million purse and a field comprised of nearly every top PGA Tour pro.

"To be honest when I lost in the Dominican this year, I was thinking maybe I'd never win," Clark said after the Wells Fargo in March. "I know that sounds crazy because I've only been out here five years, but I've had a lot of chances to where I was within two or three shots going into the back nine or starting on a Sunday, and I always seemed to fall short, and not only that but it seemed I fell back a few positions. 

"There were multiple texts and calls and times when I was so frustrated with people in my camp where I didn't think I'd ever win so I was like let's just stop talking about it because I just didn't want to think about it. I said maybe it's just not in the cards for me.  


Admitting he was guilty of losing his cool and getting negative when he previously reached contention, Clark found the mindset that enabled him to ward off those impulses at Quail Hollow. 

"So, being in the position this time, I was like, 'We know what not to do,' " Clark said. "So I really learned from those experiences and I felt like (Sunday's final round) when I didn't have the best start early on, I just told myself to relax. You can't win the tournament after the first few holes on a Sunday. 

"Little things where in the past I would have gotten fast and quick and already my mind was going forward. and so I stayed really patient, present and I think that's what calmed me down and when I ultimately got into the groove I started to make birdies."

Throughout Sunday's final round at Quail Hollow, Clark found composure he never knew he had, and was able to outplay Xander Schauffele down the stretch for the victory. 

"I think in the past I sometimes shied away from those pressure moments because I'd get too amped up," he said. "One of the hardest things in golf is that you have all these emotions, and you're so excited out there, and you have to have touch, so much touch and pace, and so in the past I feel I struggled with that. So, today I was excited and when he made putts, I was like, 'Yeah, alright now I've got to do it.' ...

"I knew Xander was going to play well, but I also knew it was going to be tough. My caddy kept preaching to me as we were warming up, he was like, 'Hey get your mind wrapped around that it's going to be challenging. It's a lot windier today, it's going to be tough pins. ... If you had told me Wednesday or Thursday that I'd be tied for the lead with 11 holes to go, I would have taken it. So I kept remindnig myself I was in a position to win. Sure, early on it wasn't as pretty as I wanted and I didn't maintain the lead. But, as I started making birdies and putts, I started to really believe I could do this."

Six weeks later, in his sixth major, after four missing cuts and never having finished better than T75 in previous major-championship starts, Clark was able to refine that composure to a major-championship level in an effort that saw him fight off Rory McIlroy through a tense final round at the Los Angeles Country Club. 

"You know, 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 in his post-victory press conference. "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. Obviously it's gone faster than I thought as far as just starting to do some stuff mentally that I've never done before, but I feel like I'm one of the best players in the world. Obviously this just shows what I believe can happen."

Steady improvement. Improved results. Improved mindset. Who out there shows a similar arc of growth and could be poised to take the final step? 

How about the 25-year-old Viktor Hovland, who has contended at three of the last four majors? 


After contending for three rounds at last Year's Open Championship and at this year's Masters, Viktor could muster no better than a final-round 74 each time, fading to T4 and T7, respectively. At the PGA Championship in May, Viktor contended throughout and posted a final-round, two-under-par 68 and finished tied for second.

One of the most talented ball-strikers on Tour, the 25-year-old Hovland answered a reporter's question after the PGA Championship's second round with insightful self-awareness.  

"I haven't done great in the majors that I've played before," Hovland said. "I've had some nice top-15 finishes and stuff like that, but I haven't quite been in contention.

"I think that's been because I've just been a little bit young and stupid, just going after some pins that I'm not supposed to go for even though I'm feeling good about my ball-striking and it's easy to just feel like, yeah, I'm going to take it right at it and make a birdie here. 

"Then you hit a decent shot, and then you're short-sided and make bogey or double, and you just can't do that in major championship golf.

"You just have to wear out center of the green. If that putter gets hot, you can make some birdies."

Even though he won for the fourth time in less than four years on the PGA Tour when he prevailed in a playoff at the Memorial last month, Hovland admitted he still has much to learn about his strategy and management around a major championship golf course, and he has worked to close that gap.

"I worked with Edoardo Molinari (the DP World Tour player who is the brother of former Open champ Francesco Molinari). He does my stats," Hovland said at the Memorial. "My instructor, Joe Mayo, he had been watching me out on the road and watched me play a few tournaments. ... It seemed like it would happen once or twice a round or something like that where I would just be in a terrible spot and cannot make a par. So he reached out to Edoardo, and we crunched some numbers and saw that I was just a little too aggressive with my shorter irons.


Has having that knowledge been important in his most recent performances?

"I think very important," said Hovland. "Because when I'm hitting it where I'm looking, I can kind of use that to my advantage and play a little bit smarter instead of sometimes when you feel like you're hitting it well, it's easy to just try to go for everything, and then you short-side yourself a couple more times than you normally would have, and now you kind of gave away that advantage that you already had by hitting the irons well. I'm just kind of giving myself a lot of looks from the middle of the green."

Hovland, who starred at Oklahoma State and became the first Norwegian to win the U.S. Amateur in 2018, has also been working to bring his short game up to the level of his ball-striking. 

"I've had a big hole that's been leaking, and I'm starting to plug those holes," Hovland said at the Masters. "When I'm just practicing, it looks really, really nice. I would put my short game up against anyone in the practice area, but it's a little bit different doing it out here and trusting it.

"I think that's kind of the last piece of the puzzle is just trusting the work instead of trying to control and steer a good shot. It's more just kind of trusting that technique and letting it happen."

Here's Hovland's assessment prior to the 2023 Masters of his game on and around the greens.

"I've just kind of kept continuing to gain confidence around the greens," he said. "Got some weapons around the green here now. The bunker's not an auto bogey. I feel like I can spin it in the bunkers even though the sand is a little bit fluffy. Short-sided is no problem. And I got some tools where I can kind of bounce it into the slope and it still checks. Before, I was out here, I could bounce it into the slope, but it would have no spin. So that's a big game changer now.

"On the greens, I just had too many thoughts over the ball. Instead of only focusing about the speed, I was thinking about the line and the stroke. It was just a little bit of a chaos."

Another name trending on the PGA Tour that would come as a surprise if he were to play well at Royal Liverpool would be Adam Schenk, who has had his best season this year, his sixth on the PGA Tour. The 31-year-old finished second at the Valspar Championship in April, and then was beaten in a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge in May, and when asked if those finishes were learning experiences, Schenk responded: 

"Yeah, learning. It's incredibly hard to win out here, and I think everybody knows that. No one would argue with that," he said. "It takes some luck, and I've had a decent amount of luck to even finish second, so great weeks. If you keep knocking on the door enough times, eventually you'll walk through. I guess that would be more my mentality.


"The one at Charles Schwab stings losing in a playoff, but the more I look back on it, Emiliano (Grillo) doubled the last hole on, so I didn't even deserve to be in the playoff,," he said. "So just having a chance and had two putts to win, so I had my chances. Didn't work out.

"Taking what I learned from that week and then from Valspar, putting it towards weeks where I'm playing well like last week. Didn't get it done; but a few more putts go in, a few less mistakes here or there, I would have been right there.

"Just generally building off of the recent success for when the cards do align, I think that gives me my best chance to win."

The Indiana native who played his college golf at Purdue and will be playing overseas for the first time off a T4 finish at John Deere, he will arrive at Royal Liverpool with a positive attitude about his near misses.

"I like how I've learned what shots I'm good at and areas I need to improve and stay away from," Shenk said after the Charles Schwab Challenge. "I just play to my strengths, and I generally putt well. ... I'll just remember - obviously we got close and know it's coming and know just to stay patient. 

"When I get in the situation again, especially if it's a difficult golf course, just to keep taking what the course gives you, stick to your game plan, and know that I'm good enough to win out here. I've proven that, but I just haven't quite gotten that done yet. Any small improvements I'll take away from this week, I will, and I'll definitely learn a couple of things."