Wyndham Clark outlasts Rory McIlroy to win first major

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 18: Wyndham Clark of the United States reacts to his winning putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 123rd US Open Championship at Los Angeles Country Club on June 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Wyndham Clark reacts to his winning putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 123rd US Open Championship at Los Angeles Country Club. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — They couldn’t be more different, the four-time major winner and face of the PGA Tour, and the virtual unknown playing in just his seventh major. But in the final holes of the US Open, Rory McIlroy and Wyndham Clark were the last men standing, separated by a single stroke with one hole to play.

McIlroy was steady, finishing the day tied and the tournament at -9. Clark was more stable, finishing 18 with the most important part of his life. When he hit a two-footer, Clark pumped both fists, let out a roar, and choked out.

The drama started a few holes earlier. With five holes remaining, Clark stood at -11 and led McIlroy by a stroke. Playing in the penultimate group, McIlroy had spent the entire day playing regular golf – a birdie at first followed by 11 straight pars. Clark, meanwhile, was on a wilder ride – three birdies against two bogeys on the front nine.

Then came the 13th pivot, where McIlroy finally stumbled and Clark stepped up. McIlroy’s approach to the par-5 hole embedded in the face of the greenside bunker, and the result – after relief – was a bogey to drop him to -9. Clark, playing in the final group, put on his own approach to the green – only the second player of the day to reach the green in two shots – and birdied the hole for a two-shot swing and a lead at three shots with four holes to play.

But this is the US Open, where nothing is easy. Clark made the only bogey all day on the 139-yard 15th hole, while ahead of him McIlroy made a long par save. Clark found the fairway bunker on the 16th and was forced to lay down. Facing a par-saving seven-foot putt, perhaps the most crucial putt of his career, Clark burned the right edge to allow McIlroy to come within a stroke with two holes to play.

Standing on the 18th tee, McIlroy was trailing all of a sudden. Behind him, Clark fired his approach on 17 on the brink of harsh punishment from the Los Angeles Country Club, but launched his approach to tap-in distance.

That meant Clark was heading for the 18th with a one shot lead. Ahead of him, McIlroy rolled into another par to complete an even lap. Clark’s tee shot held the far right of the wide fairway. He landed his approach on the green, nearly 60 feet from the pin. His lag putt rolled within 17 inches, and a short putt later Clark was an unlikely major champion.

For McIlroy, it was another close call, his third runner-up and 19th top-10 finish since his last major win in 2014.

The 123rd US Open wasn’t even golf’s biggest story when players started arriving in Los Angeles last Monday. The PGA Tour and Saudi-backed LIV Golf have taken the spotlight with their stunning alliance after more than a year of full-scale civil war.

Players who spoke to the media ahead of the US Open complained they were taken aback by the announcement and still unaware of the future of professional golf. This included those who accepted huge sums of money to join LIV Golf and those who passed out out of loyalty to the PGA Tour and ethical concern over Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights abuses.

“I think the general feeling,” said two-time major champion Jon Rahm, “is that a lot of people feel a bit betrayed by management.”

The focus gradually shifted Thursday as anticipation built for the Los Angeles Country Club to open its doors to the public. The ultra-exclusive and intensely private Beverly Hills club for decades had resisted publicity. Los Angeles residents could live their whole lives not realizing that this club existed behind tree-lined fences, next to a glitzy mall, posh hotels and gated mansions.

The crown jewel of the Los Angeles Country Club was a famous golf course designed by George Thomas, widely considered one of the best in the country by those who had played it. The North Course’s wide, sloping fairways and vulnerable par-5s were unusual for a US Open, but its barranca, bunkers and Bermuda rough promised a unique challenge for the world’s best players, especially those who saw the course. for the first time. .

“I hope it’s carnage. Hopefully it’s a typical US Open,” Los Angeles native Max Homa predicted on Tuesday. “This golf course lends itself to it.”

It was not carnage. It wasn’t a typical US Open either.

Sparse crowds loaded with club members and business types watched Rickie Fowler produce the lowest round in 128-year US Open history on Thursday morning, only for Xander Schauffele to equal it minutes later. Fowler and Schauffele took advantage of wet greens, minimal breeze and favorable pin positions to punish an undefended golf course and shoot 8 under par 62.

When the course later showed more teeth worthy of the US Open, Fowler didn’t hesitate in the moment. He maintained at least a chunk of the lead after Friday and Saturday, solid proof that the fan favorite is on his way back after his game left him out for more than three years when he fell to 185th. global.

Fowler drew the loudest roars from onlookers at the Los Angeles Country Club on the first three days of the week, but he was far from the only compelling story on the leaderboard.

There was McIlroy, determined to abandon his role as the face of the PGA Tour war against LIV and focus strictly on ending their nine-year major drought. There was Scottie Scheffler, the best ball hitter on tour but an inconsistent putter who started experimenting with a new club this week.

Then there was the outlier among the leaders, a 29-year-old Clark who was ranked outside the top 200 just two years ago and didn’t claim his first victory as a professional until May. Clark gained confidence as he racked up the top 25 finishes this season and then unleashed the best golf of his career on the US Open stage.

As darkness began to envelope the Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday night, Clark landed a nervous downhill putt to secure his place alongside Fowler in Sunday’s final duet. McIlroy trailed the co-leaders in one fell swoop after three laps, with Scheffler looking to close a three-stroke deficit.

The marine layer that had unfolded late Saturday afternoon receded shortly before the leaders left on Sunday afternoon, and by then it was already clear there were birdies to do. Tommy Fleetwood came within a short missed putt on 18 to match Thursday’s 62 from Fowler and Burns. (Fleetwood now has two 63s on US Open Sundays, with no trophies to show for it.) Elsewhere on the course, Jon Rahm and Austin Eckroat have carded five under-65s, a sign that low numbers are here again for the catch.

But none of these players was in contention for the US Open. The handcuffs tightened around Fowler almost immediately, as he bogged the second and fifth holes. Clark had the most stable putter early on, birdieing the first, fourth and sixth while bogging the second. McIlroy started his round with a birdie, but then needed some deft work to hold pars for the next few holes. Scheffler held serve through the first period, carding six straight pars.

At the turn, Clark held a one-shot lead over McIlroy at -10, while Fowler struggled at -8 and Scheffler couldn’t do anything at -7.

And then came the back nine, and with it a momentary separation. Clark made impressive saves by the margin at 9 and 11, and entering the final third of the course he had a one-shot lead over McIlroy’s -10. Fowler, meanwhile, lost the rhythm again as play errors off the tee led to bogeys at 11 and 12 to fall to -6. Scheffler’s balky putter, which cost him bogeys on those same two holes, effectively knocked him out of the tournament, leaving him six headshots as he exited the 12th green.

That left McIlroy and Clark as the only two with a realistic shot at the US Open trophy. And from there, the drama of the final holes began and culminated with Clark surviving to win the first major of his career.

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