LOS ANGELES, CA. Major championships are the hardest events to win for several reasons. First and foremost, the events determine legacy.
Your ultimate place in the game is determined by your performance in them. There's a clear reason why stars such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are held in awe. Players are well aware of the stakes involved and the inherent pressure to perform is even more intensified.
Couple that with high caliber host venues specifically prepared in mandating the finest in shotmaking at crucial moments and you have ongoing situations where balancing physical and mental pressures is a constant stress point. Only the most gifted can overcome while others succumb and fall back.
Yesterday's final round at the U.S. Open boiled down to this. Wyndham Clark played better at the most critical moments than his lone pursuer Rory McIlroy.
The two men separated themselves away from the rest of the field and the final nine holes provided a chess match between the two.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 18, 2023
Clark teetered at various points but was able to keep matters in check and avoid any massive scorecard bloodletting. McIlroy desperately wanted to end his nearly nine-year major-less streak and after making birdie at the opening par-5 1st appeared poised to do so.
Amazingly, Clark brought to the forefront a Houdini-like ability to escape serious calamities at the par-5 8th when double-bogey seemed imminent. He left the hole with a gutsy bogey. At the par-3 9th he missed the green left and played a superlative chip using the slope of the green and making a six-foot putt for par. At the long par-3 11th he missed the green to the left but again pitched close to the hole and made the putt for par.
In all of the above instances there were clear moments when Clark could have frittered away shots but he kept his footing and, more importantly, the control of the lead.
McIlroy had the better ball-striking for much of the round but, as has happened over the last few years when in serious contention in a final round in a major event, the Northern Irishman was betrayed by a putter that never holed a much-needed putt to spur him on to ultimate victory.
Time after time McIlroy would make quality putts but none would fall. As the round came to its ending at the 18th, McIlroy needed to make a birdie that could have applied massive pressure on Clark who was playing in only his 7th major event and having only made the 36-hole cut in two of them.
What a save from @Wyndham_Clark 💪
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 19, 2023
McIlroy's approach to the 18th found the putting surface but, as he had done throughout the day, his approach failed to get closer than 42 feet and the final birdie attempt failed to deliver.
How good was McIlroy's ball-striking? He hit 15 greens in the regulation stroke -- tying him with Jon Rahm for the best in the final round. Overall, Rory hit 59 greens in regulation for the championship -- six more than anyone else in the field.
Rory's talent is clear to anyone who has eyes to see. He has played in 58 major events and has 29 top-ten and 17 top-five finishes. His wherewithal to get into the fray consistently has been admirable. But as he showed in last year's Open Championship at St. Andrews during that final round, he was unable to push himself to a much-needed higher level of performance. The winless streak in majors now rises to 33 since his last win in 2014 at the PGA Championship.
After his birdie at the opening hole, McIlroy would go the rest of the round with zero birdies.
Clark, to his credit, did play a number of fine shots. After missing the fairway at the demanding long par-4 13th, he was able to muscle his approach from the tenacious rough and find the green. At the par-5 14th, his 3-metal approach from 270-plus yards was superlative in finding the 10-yard-wide alleyway to the green and providing him with a two-putt birdie and a three-shot lead.
But the 29-year-old then bogied the next two holes and the margin shrunk to a single shot. It was at this moment that McIlroy could have applied the much needed play that would have served as the turning point for the championship.
The final three holes on the North Course at LACC are three stout par-4 holes -- measuring the longest of any U.S. Open course at 1,566 yards. Given McIlroy's talents in driving the ball he seemed on the precipice to seize the moment and the championship.
Then McIlroy missed fairways at the 16th and 17th and while he made pars at both he was unable to get his approach shots close enough for birdie tries.
Clark's arrival at LACC came after winning his first notable title at the Wells Fargo event this past May at Quail Hollow. Like many on the PGA TOUR he has been toiling to push himself up the ladder in the highly competitive world of professional golf.
Much of the early storyline at this year's U.S. Open centered on the re-emergence of Rickie Fowler. The 34-year-old had fallen dramatically in the world rankings over the last few years and was searching for his first major and win since 2019. His play for the first 54 holes was inspiring and going into the final round he was tied with Clark.
Unfortunately, Fowler's time at the front ended rather abruptly and he closed the event with a lackluster 75 and T6.
Clark leaves Los Angeles with the U.S. Open trophy and now becomes a rising star of consequence. In all likelihood, he will be a member of the USA squad that competes in the Ryder Cup matches later this year in Rome.
For a player who had never been in contention for a major event he displayed a steadiness to handle the considerable pressures involved when doing so. How fitting for a Hollywood ending in Los Angeles.
For McIlroy, he will have the opportunity to end his major-less streak when The Open Championship comes to Royal Liverpool next month. Fond memories for Rory as it was at Hoylake that Rory claimed the Claret Jug in 2014. Undoubtedly, he is looking to rekindle those specific memories and have his name once again included on a major championship trophy.