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 U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy and Wyndham Clark were the last men standing, separated by just a single stroke with one hole to play.
McIlroy was steady, finishing the day at even par and the tournament at -9. Clark was steadier, finishing out the 18th with the most important par of his life.
The drama began a few holes earlier. With five holes remaining, Clark stood at -11 and led McIlroy by a stroke. Playing in the second-to-last group, McIlroy had spent the entire day playing steady golf – a birdie at the 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 pivotal 13th, where McIlroy finally stumbled and Clark stepped up. McIlroy’s approach on 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, threaded his own approach onto the green — only the second player all day to reach the green in two strokes – and birdied the hole for a two-shot swing and a three-shot lead with four holes to play.
But this is the U.S. Open, where nothing comes easy. Clark made the only bogey of the entire day on the 81-yard 15th hole, while ahead of him McIlroy managed a long par save. Clark found the fairway bunker on the 16th and was forced to lay up. Facing a seven-foot putt to save par, perhaps the most crucial putt of his career, Clark burned the right edge to allow McIlroy back to within a stroke with two holes to play.
Standing on the 18th tee, McIlroy trailed by a single stroke. Behind him, Clark pulled his approach on 17 to the edge of Los Angeles Country Club’s punishing rough, but darted his approach to tap-in distance.
That meant Clark walked to the 18th with a one-stroke lead. Ahead of him, McIlroy rolled in another par to finish out an even-par round. Clark’s tee shot held the far right side of the wide fairway, He landed his approach onto the green, almost 60 feet away from the pin. His lag putt rolled to within 17 inches, and one short putt later, Clark was an unlikely major champion.
The 123rd U.S. Open wasn’t even the biggest story in golf when players began arriving in Los Angeles last Monday. The PGA Tour and Saudi-backed LIV Golf hijacked the spotlight with their stunning alliance after more than a year of full-blown civil war.
Players who addressed the media before the U.S. Open complained that they were blindsided by the announcement and still clueless about the future of professional golf. That included those who accepted vast sums of money to join LIV Golf and those who passed out of loyalty to the PGA Tour and ethical concerns about Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights violations.
“I think the general feeling,” two-time major champion Jon Rahm said, “is that a lot of people feel a bit of betrayal from management.”
The focus gradually shifted by Thursday as anticipation built for Los Angeles Country Club to open its gates to the public. The ultra-exclusive, intensely private Beverly Hills club for decades had resisted publicity. People in Los Angeles could go their entire lives without realizing that this club existed behind tree-lined fences, adjacent to a glitzy mall, posh hotels and gated mansions.
The jewel of Los Angeles Country Club was a renowned George Thomas-designed golf course widely regarded as one of the nation’s finest by those who had played it. The north course’s wide, sloping fairways and vulnerable par-5s were unusual for a U.S. Open, but its barranca, bunkers and bermuda rough promised a unique challenge for the best players in the world, especially those who were seeing the course for the first time.
“I hope it’s carnage. I hope it’s a typical U.S. Open,” Los Angeles native Max Homa predicted on Tuesday. “This golf course lends itself to that.”
It wasn’t carnage. Nor was it a typical U.S. Open.
Sparse crowds loaded with club members and corporate types watched Rickie Fowler produce the lowest-scoring round in the U.S. Open’s 128-year history on Thursday morning, only to have Xander Schauffele match him mere minutes later. Fowler and Schauffele took advantage of moist greens, minimal breeze and favorable pin positions to punish a defenseless golf course and shoot 8-under-par 62s.
When the course subsequently demonstrated more U.S. Open-worthy teeth, Fowler didn’t shrink from the moment. He maintained at least a share of the lead after Friday and Saturday, strong evidence that the fan favorite on his way back after his game deserted him for three-plus years and he sank as low as No. 185 in the world.
Fowler drew the loudest roars from spectators at Los Angeles Country Club the first three days of the week, but he was far from the only compelling story on the leaderboard.
There was McIlroy, determined to shed his role as the face of the PGA Tour’s war on LIV and to focus strictly on ending his nine-year major drought. There was Scottie Scheffler, the best ball striker on tour but an inconsistent putter who began experimenting with a new club this week.
Then there was the outlier among the leaders, a 29-year-old who was ranked outside the top 200 as recently as two years ago and didn’t earn his first victory as a professional until May. Clark gained confidence piling up top 25 finishes this season and then unleashed the best golf of his career on the U.S. Open stage.
As darkness began to envelop the Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday evening, Clark sank a nervy downhill birdie putt to secure his place alongside Fowler in Sunday’s final twosome. McIlroy trailed the co-leaders by a single stroke after three rounds with Scheffler looking to make up a three-shot deficit.
The marine layer that had rolled in late Saturday afternoon receded shortly before the leaders teed off Sunday afternoon, and by then it was already clear that there were birdies to be had. Tommy Fleetwood came within a missed short putt on 18 of matching the Thursday 62s of Fowler and Burns. (Fleetwood now has two 63s on U.S. Open Sundays, with no trophies to show for it.) Elsewhere on the course, Jon Rahm and Austin Eckroat carded five-under 65s, a sign that low numbers once again there for the taking.
But none of those players were in realistic contention for the U.S. Open. The handcuffs tightened around Fowler almost immediately, as he bogeyed both the second and the fifth holes. Clark had the steadier putter early on, birdieing the first, fourth and sixth while bogeying the second. McIlroy started his round with a birdie, but then needed some deft work out of the rough to maintain pars the next few holes. Scheffler held serve through the first third, carding six straight pars.
At the turn, Clark held a one-stroke lead over McIlroy at -10, while Fowler struggled at -8 and Scheffler couldn’t get anything going at -7.
And then came the back nine, and with it momentary separation. Clark managed some impressive par saves from the fringe on 9 and 11, and entering the final third of the course held a one-stroke lead over McIlroy’s -10. Fowler, meanwhile, fell further off the pace, as misplays off the tee led to bogeys at 11 and 12 to fall to -6.. Scheffler’s balky putter, which cost him bogeys at those same two holes, effectively shot him out of the tournament, leaving him six strokes off the lead as he walked off the 12th green.
That left McIlroy and Clark as the only two with a realistic shot at the U.S. Open trophy. And from there, the drama of the final holes began.