Windham Clark holds off Rory McIlroy to claim his first major

Windham Clark reacts to his winning putt at number 18 during the final round of the 123rd US Open at The Los Angeles Country Club. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

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

McIlroy was consistent, finishing the day on par and championship at -9. Clarke was more consistent, finishing 18th with the most important par of his life. When he hit Clark with his fists, he slammed Clark with his fists, growled and choked.

The drama started a few holes earlier. With five holes remaining, Clarke stood at -11 and McIlroy led by a stroke. Playing the second-to-last set, McIlroy had spent the entire day playing steady golf – birdie on the first followed by 11 straights. Meanwhile, Clarke has been in for a wild ride—three birdies against two bogeys on the front nine.

Then came the pivotal 13th, where McIlroy finally faltered and Clarke came up. McIlroy’s approach on the par-5 embed hole in the face of the green cellar, and the result – after resting – was a bogey to drop him to -9. Clarke, playing the last set, passed his approach on the green—only the second player all day to reach the green by two strokes—and closed the hole for a two-and-three-put swing with four holes to play.

But this is the US Open, where nothing comes easy. Clarke made the only bogey of the day on the 139-yard 15th hole, while McIlroy ahead of him made a long save. Clark found the fairway bunker on the 16th and had to lie down. Facing a par-saving seven-foot putt, perhaps the most important putt of his career, Clark burned the right edge to allow McElroy to return inside a two-hole putt to play.

McIlroy stands on the 18th tee, trailing by one stroke. Behind him, Clark pulled his approach on the 17th to the Los Angeles Country Club’s hard-punching brink, but rallied on his approach to tapping distance.

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This meant that Clark walked to the 18th-place finish by one stroke. Before him, McIlroy rolled in another par to end the even round. Clark’s tee shot carried the far right side of the wide fairway. His approach landed on the green, approximately 60 feet from the pin. His late shot curled to within 17 inches, and just after that, Clarke was an unexpected major hero.

For McIlroy, it was another close call, as he finished second for the third time and 19th in the top ten since his last major victory in 2014.

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

Players who addressed the media prior to the US Open complained that they were surprised by the announcement and remain ignorant of the future of professional golf. This included those who accepted large sums of money to join LIV Golf and those who had lost allegiance to the PGA Tour and ethical concerns about Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights abuses.

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

The focus gradually shifted by Thursday with the Los Angeles Country Club expected to open its doors to the public. The ultra-exclusive, ultra-private Beverly Hills Club has resisted publicity for decades. People in Los Angeles could go their entire lives without realizing that this club exists behind tree-lined walls, near a shiny mall, luxury hotels, and gated mansions.

The jewel of the Los Angeles Country Club was a famous golf course designed by George Thomas and widely considered one of the best courses in the country by those who played it. The North Court’s wide, steep fairways and weak runs were unusual for a US Open, but Barranca and its bunkers and Bermuda roughness promised a unique challenge to the world’s best players, especially those watching the track for the first time.

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“I hope it will be carnage. I hope it will be an exemplary US Open,” Los Angeles native Max Homma predicted on Tuesday. “This golf course lends itself to that.”

It wasn’t a massacre. Nor was the US Open tournament typical.

Scattered crowds filled with club members and corporate types watched Ricky Fowler hit the lowest scoring average in the 128-year history of the US Open Thursday morning, only to be met by Xander Schauffele just minutes later. Fowler and Schauffele took advantage of the damp greens, minimal breeze, and favorable positions for the pins to punish a defenseless golf course and shoot 62s.

When the course later showed more US-worthy teeth, Fowler didn’t shrink from the moment. He has at least maintained his share of the lead after Friday and Saturday, strong evidence that the fan favorite is on his way back after his game deserted him for more than three years when he sank to No. 185 in the world.

Fowler drew the loudest roar from LA country club spectators the first three days of the week, but he wasn’t the only compelling story on the leaderboard.

There was McIlroy, determined to abandon his role as the face of the PGA Tour war on LIV and focus strictly on ending his nine-year major drought. There was Scotty Scheffler, the best ball-forward on the tour but an inconsistent batsman who started trying out a new club this week.

Then there was a hardcore among the leaders, 29-year-old Clark who was rated outside the top 200 as recently as two years ago and didn’t get his first win as a pro until May. Clarke gained confidence after hitting a career-best 25 finals this season and then unleashed the best golf of his career at the US Open stage.

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As darkness began to envelop the Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday night, Clarke sank a nervous birdie downhill to secure his spot alongside Fowler in Sunday’s final two-legged game. McIlroy trailed his co-drivers by one stroke after three rounds as Scheffler looked to make up a three-shot deficit.

The sea class that had rolled in late Saturday afternoon gave way shortly before the leaders were out on Sunday afternoon, and by then it was already clear that there were birds to be caught. Tommy Fleetwood came within a short hit missed on the 18th of Thursday’s match of 62 from Fowler and Burns. (Fleetwood now owns two 63s at the US Open Sundays, with no prizes to show.)

But none of these players were in real-life contention for the US Open. The handcuffs tightened around Fowler almost immediately, as he was bogeying the second and fifth holes. Clarke had a steadier bat early on, hitting first, fourth and sixth while hitting second. McIlroy started his round with a birdie, but then needed some skill work to get out of the rough to keep his pars for the next few holes. Scheffler held serve through the first third, sweeping six straight pars.

In contrast, Clarke held a one-stroke lead over McIlroy at -10, while Fowler struggled at -8 and Scheffler could get nothing at -7.

Then came the back nine, and with it a temporary breakaway. Clark pulled off some great saves from the sidelines on the 9th and 11th, and entering the final third of the course he was one stroke ahead of McIlroy’s -10. Fowler, meanwhile, dropped the pace, as an error off the tee bogeyed at 11 and 12 to drop to -6. Scheffler’s balky putter, which cost him a bogey in the same two holes, effectively shot him out of the championship, leaving him six strokes out of the lead as he bowled the twelfth.

That made McIlroy and Clark the only ones with a realistic shot at the US Open Cup. And from there, the drama of the final holes began and culminated with Clarke surviving to win the first major of his career.

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