With a twirl at twilight, Wyndham Clark plays his way into a tie for the lead

LOS ANGELES — At the end of the most important round of golf of his life, Wyndham Clark struggled to keep his emotions dammed up.

They began to spill out when Clark produced two massive shots in adverse conditions to seize a share of the lead entering the final round of the U.S. Open.

With darkness enveloping the Los Angeles Country Club’s north course and the memory of a costly 17th-hole bogey fresh in his mind, Clark hit his 170-yard second shot at 18 off the flag stick and within six feet of the hole. The ball hadn’t even landed yet when Clark unleashed a roar and theatrically twirled his club in his hands in celebration.

Clark arrived at the 18th green needing to sink a downhill birdie putt to improve to 10-under par and clinch a spot in Sunday’s final twosome alongside co-leader Rickie Fowler. When he sank the putt without enough light to properly assess the contours of the green, Clark commemorated the moment with a Tiger-esque fist pump.

“I really wanted to be in that final group,” Clark said. “Every shot matters out here. And on top of it, we couldn’t see. So making it when we were kind of just feeling it and didn’t really have the clearest of reads, yeah, there’s a lot of emotion.”

Clark’s comments about the darkness raised the question how the 29-year-old Denver native felt about finishing his round in the twilight. Saturday’s final group of Clark and Fowler didn’t tee off until 3:40 p.m. PST and walked off the 18th green just minutes before sunset.

While Fowler made no excuse for botching a short par putt on 18 that cost him the outright lead, Clark said, “I think Rickie’s bogey on 18 was because he couldn’t see.” Clark added that the darkness contributed to his own wayward second shot on 17 and greatly increased the difficulty of the 6-foot bogey putt that he sank. He said his caddie told him, “Make sure you hit it soft because we don’t want to blow this by. We need a tap-in coming in.”

“It’s a little ridiculous that we teed off that late,” Clark said. “I would say right around hole 15 or 16 it started getting to where you couldn’t see that well. I mean, I don’t personally understand why we teed off — we played twilight golf.”

When a reporter pointed out that the culprit was likely NBC’s desire to have the tournament in primetime on the East Coast, Clark doubled down on his stance. Clark said that he and Fowler were at “a little bit of a disadvantage on those last two holes playing in the dark.”

“Honestly, we both could have called it if we wanted to on that putting green and said, ‘Hey, I can’t see,’ ” Clark said. “I think that would’ve looked pretty poorly.”

The USGA moved Sunday’s tee times up an hour earlier, meaning Clark and Fowler will go off at 2:30 p.m. PST. Sunset is expected around 8:07 p.m.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 17: Wyndham Clark watches his shot on the 15th tee box during the third round of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club (North Course) on June 17, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

Wyndham Clark watches his shot on the 15th tee box during the third round of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship at The Los Angeles Country Club. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

Clark is the outlier on a loaded leaderboard

Whereas the rest of the U.S. Open leaderboard is loaded with fan favorites like Fowler or past major champions like Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Dustin Johnson, Clark is the little-known outlier. Until this week, he had never made the cut at a U.S. Open, nor finished better at a major than a tie for 75th.

Clark was a 60-to-1 long shot to win the U.S. Open coming into the week, but his recent play hinted that he might be a bigger threat than that. Fueled by his trademark booming drives and his improved iron play this season, Clark tallied seven top-25 finishes in his past nine starts and picked up his first PGA Tour win. He won the Wells Fargo Championship in May by four strokes.

Clark didn’t look uncomfortable battling the likes of Fowler, McIlroy and Scheffler on Saturday with the U.S. Open hanging in the balance. It didn’t hurt that he and Fowler are longtime friends dating back to the year that Clark spent at Fowler’s alma mater, Oklahoma State.

When Clark was a PGA Tour rookie, he said Fowler sent him encouraging texts and gave him advice. Clark even began using the same putter as Fowler after falling in love with it while practicing with Fowler in Florida one day.

“I texted the Odyssey guy, and I said, ‘Hey, can you make me Rickie’s putter?’ Clark recalled. “He’s like, ‘Well what specs?’ I said, ‘The exact same.’”

It also helped Clark on Saturday that he has some experience playing in the dark. As a kid, he would putt deep into the night at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado.

“You have putts just like I did on 18 where you can half see it and half can’t and no one is out there and you’re just calling out whatever tournament it is to win,” Clark said. “So I’ve done it many times … but it’s a little surreal to be in this situation.”