A Worthy Champion
Wyndham Clark willed his way to victory at the U.S. Open, giving the game the respite it sorely needed
By Michael Bamberger
LOS ANGELES—The winner, Wyndham Clark, comes out of familiar U.S. Open tradition: the low-flash champ. Hale Irwin in 1974, Lou Graham one year later. Scott Simpson in ’87, Steve Jones in ’96, Lucas Glover in ’09. Many others, through the years: a Gary Woodland here, a Graeme McDowell there, to cite two winners at Pebble Beach; a Michael Campbell here, a Geoff Ogilvy there, to cite two winners from Down Under.
Four days of fairways-and-greens and the next thing you know you’re a Jeopardy! answer and a New York Times crossword clue; you’re signing a new foot-to-cap deal and getting pro-traced by Brandel Chamblee.
Clark, 29, is slightly laid-off at the top, as are so many in the under-30 crowd; he aims slightly left; he hits it hard; and he plays out of the left rough only on those rare occasions when his ball doesn’t fade.
The grip on his putter grip is a half-yard long, it’s about as thick as a candlestick bowling pin and about as heavy as a steak knife at Ruth’s Chris. Talk about taking your hands out of it.
His ball marker is a tribute to his late mother on one side and his Lord on the other. (Larry Nelson, Scott Simpson and Steve Jones are devout Christians, too.) Clark was a teenager when his mother died of breast cancer. He carries the pain and the memory and has turned it into desire and tribute.
Mother had a nickname for son: “Winner.” Mother had a mantra for son: “Play big.” Winner played big on a big course against a deep field, just as he did in May, when he won the Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow.
Clark was paired with his buddy Rickie Fowler on Saturday and again on Sunday, marching up and down the hills at Los Angeles Country Club. Two days straight, in the day’s last twosome. They chatted a little here and there, but not about their putters. Each knows the other’s putter, as they are exactly the same. “I texted the Odyssey guy, and I said, ‘Hey, can you make me Rickie’s putter?’” This was in March. Clark told the story at LACC. “And he’s like, ‘Well, what specs?’ I said, `The exact same.’”
A Colorado native, Clark went to Oklahoma State for two years, before transferring to Oregon, after his mother’s death in 2013. He was 19. Fowler is a Cowboy through-and-through. It was a long weekend with late tee times. Fowler, after a fourth-round 75 that was 13 shots higher than his first-round score, waited patiently, not moving, as Clark wept in his caddie’s arms, his hands balled into fists. Later, Fowler said to him, “Your mom was with you. She’d be very proud.” Fowler, now 34, is a husband and a father and a veteran. We’ve watched him grow up. It’s amazing how that happens, and how moving a simple and heartfelt comment can be.
A lot of things have happened this year and last that have degraded the game. All the money talk, all the nasty tweets, the lawsuits and the countersuits. This U.S. Open was a respite.
Wyndham Clark now has two Tour wins on two big courses against two deep fields. He’s for real. But that doesn’t mean he’ll ever win another major.
Nobody knew, on Father’s Day at Winged Foot in 1974, that Irwin, after winning his first major and third PGA Tour event, would become a first-ballot Hall of Famer, taking his talent and grit to heights that few in the game have ever reached. He, too, was 29, with Colorado roots. And nobody knows if Clark, who played four days of solid golf, got to 12 under par and protected his lead like it was a newborn baby, will be another solid professional with a long and fruitful career—like a Scott Simpson or a Lucas Glover or a Gary Woodland—or an outlier, like Irwin. That is, one of the best players ever.
What we know is that Clark won, with a 10-under total. “Everybody sees the person who hoists the trophy,” he said. Exactly. We don’t see the family, the support team, the range sessions, the caddie’s math, the self-talk.
We all saw that Clark has a superb and athletic swing, a lithe and powerful physique, and an unassuming and appropriate manner. We know that he’s devoted to the memory of his mother. What’s not to like?
It’s not his fault that he’s not Rory McIlroy. It’s not his fault that he’s not Rickie Fowler. But he is the winner of the 123rd U.S. Open on a spectacular course that was not user-friendly for fans and was too user-friendly for players.
Poor McIlroy. A golfer of his skill set and charisma and profile doesn’t want to be in the position of hanging out behind the 18th green and having to hope for the leader to make a bogey on the last to force a playoff. But that was where he found himself. And, as you know if you watched, that’s not what happened.
The tee shot on the final hole of a U.S. Open should leave a player trembling. But when you’re looking at a fairway that is 55 yards wide, what is there to be afraid of? Clark gave it a rip, faded it way too much—and was still in the fairway.
Clark now has more majors than Fowler, who is still searching for his first as he claws his way out of a golfing hole deeper than that crazy bunker at PGA West. But he will never have the pizazz or broad appeal of a Fowler or a McIlroy.
It’s not his fault. Chemistry is chemistry. R.E.M. had Michael Stipe. Love Tractor, another talented band that got together at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, did not. And that’s why you have heard of R.E.M., and, chances are, not Love Tractor.
Well, now you’ve heard of Wyndham Clark. Now he has a place in the game forever. He’s not going away. Whether he wins again is a different question. But you’ll be seeing him for a long time to come. The British Open is next month. He’ll be in the field. The Ryder Cup is in September. He’ll be on the U.S. team. Next year he’ll play in the Masters for the first time. He just played his way into the club. A week ago, he was another very good young player, like Keith Mitchell, like Sam Burns, like Will Zalatoris. Now he has something those three do not. He has a major. A U.S. Open. He’ll have it forever.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]