The winners and losers of the 2023 US Open

After a wild, hotly contested week of strange scoring at Los Angeles Country Club, Wyndham Clark is the US Open champion and Rory McIlroy will have to wait at least another month to end his major drought. To make sense of all the highs and lows from this national championship, here are our winners and losers from this season’s third major.

Winner: Wyndham Clark

Wyndham Clark doesn’t show much emotion on the golf course. He keeps a stoic face and gives up little, whether he’s hitting a birdie putt or bogeying the 70th hole while leading a major. He clarified earlier this week that he’s actually “very emotional. … Deep down I want to fist pump every time I make a putt and talk trash and whatever.” But when his final putt rolled in on 18 on Sunday to secure his US Open victory, he finally showed those depths to the world.

Clark told reporters that he was focused on accomplishing three things this week: (1) Enjoying his time playing LACC; (2) plays cocky; and (3) to remind oneself of the first two things. It may seem like a… highlighted strategy for someone who missed the cut in the only two other U.S. Opens he had played in and someone who by then had been T75 at the 2021 PGA Championship. But Clark’s play this year has given him some reason to have dizziness.

He won his first PGA tournament in May at the Wells Fargo Championship. He finished T12 at the Memorial just a few weeks ago. And he has reached the top six at the Zurich Classic, the Corales Puntacana Championship and the Valspar Championship. Before this year, Clark was known to be a solid driver and solid putter. But this year, he’s rounded out the rest of his game — and his short game was especially critical coming down the stretch at LACC.

Clark scrambled well Sunday after putting himself in plenty of tough positions on the back nine. After entering 15 with a three-shot lead, Clark missed three consecutive greens. His putter couldn’t save him on the par-3 15th and made the field’s only bogey all day on the hole. And an errant drive threw him into a bunker at 4pm and forced him to lie down. But his iron game kept him in contention for a par (although his putter let him down again). And at 5 and 6 p.m., clinging to a suddenly slim one-shot lead, it all came crashing down.

Rickie Fowler, who is an Oklahoma State alum like Clark and played with the 29-year-old both Saturday and Sunday, has long been complimentary of Clark and his game. But on Sunday, all he could think about was Clark’s mother – who the family lost to breast cancer when Wyndham was 19 – and how emotional she must have been to see her son lift the US Open trophy.

Little winner: Me

Not to brag (but definitely to brag): I mentioned Clark as a solid dark horse candidate in our US Open prediction file last week. Hope you rams out there were listening!

Loser: Rory McIlroy … Again

He can’t keep getting away with this. And by “this” I mean coming so close to win his fifth major (and first in nine years) and fail to finish the job.

Since he last won one of golf’s biggest annual prizes – the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla – McIlroy has 19 top-10 finishes at majors. That includes three second-place finishes, a third at last year’s Open Championship, two fourths and four fifths. Hell, he’s only missed the cut in the majors seven times in that span — that’s almost a 3-to-1 top-10-to-cut ratio! But while his failures this week weren’t nearly as dramatic as what happened at St. Andrew’s last summer, this loss was still quite painful.

As we entered the final nine, it looked like things were going well for Rory. Scottie Scheffler, who entered Sunday three shots back of the lead, had mostly fallen away, as had former co-leader Rickie Fowler, who was plus-2 at the front. That made Rory and Clark dueling, and McIlroy has all the experience in that regard. Instead of showing a killer instinct, however, McIlroy continued his week-long battle on the back. He put his third shot into the side of a bunker at 14, only to get free relief and bogey it anyway. At 17, he took an uncharacteristic line into the green and opted to hit his drive into the second fairway for a better angle. It mostly worked – but he couldn’t get his approach shot close enough to make better than par.

The putter was difficult for him on Sunday – he hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation but managed just one birdie. He admitted as much after the round: “The putter, I want to regret some of the chances I missed,” McIlroy said. “That was it, and then shot that wedge on 14 and fell a little short. Those are the few things I’ll regret today.”

“Like I said yesterday, I’ll keep coming back until I get another one,” Rory concluded of his latest major mishap. But it’s getting harder and harder for fans to be optimistic about it. Think of it this way: As the NBC broadcast said Sunday, the last time Rory won a major, Scheffler was an 18-year-old playing at the University of Texas. He is now the No. 1 player in the world. Brooks Koepka, who had just one major top-10 to his name in 2014, now has five wins – one more than McIlroy. Something has to change, and fast, if Rory is to keep this dream of a fifth major alive.

Winner: The Legend of Rickie Fowler

It didn’t end the way he or any of his legions of fans wanted. But compare this performance – where he finished T5 and had a share of the 54-hole lead – to where he was last year and Rickie is a clear winner this week.

Fowler was the first alternate at Brookline for last year’s US Open, and he famously spent the week on the course practicing and preparing in case he could make the tournament, only to fly home dejected when it didn’t happen. Last fall, he barely made the FedExCup playoffs (thanks largely to the spots vacated by players leaving the PGA for LIV Golf); he dropped to 185th in the world in November, his lowest position in at least 12 years; and he has spent this winter making changes. He has a new caddy on the bag; he has worked with famed swing coach Butch Harmon, not only on his swing, but also the mental side of his game; and across the first three days of the US Open, he has looked largely flawless – even carding a US Open record 62 on Thursday.

It’s disappointing that his work didn’t end with a win on Sunday, or even a better finish than his plus-5 last round. But seeing Fowler’s bright orange outfit back in action was a welcome sight – and a fitting comeback for a player who has stepped down overratedto the underrated, to something forgotten, perhaps, hopefully, left.

Winner: Los Angeles Country Club

This can be controversial! I’m willing to admit that! But I would advise you to take this winner in conjunction with my next loser.

LACC hosted its first major championship this week and the first US Open in Los Angeles in 75 years. And despite an opening round in which both Fowler and Xander Schauffele shot record-low 62s (and some worried the course might be too easy for this championship), LACC largely provided a challenging test.

Yes, there were bumps: the fairway on 18 was too wide; a number of the holes were scored oddly, so you’d get things like a 295-yard par-3 on 11 or a 330-yard par-4 on 6; and for a brief period on Sunday, the cups even rejected golf balls.

But all in all, the course offered lots of interesting tests. How to play e.g. the 6th, which, despite its short length, offered opportunities to putt left, go straight to the green or putt right (all with a variety of possible outcomes). Or no. 15, which on Saturday became the shortest hole in US Open history at 81 yards, but gave people fits and difficult shots all week.

It’s a fascinating course that with a few changes (and perhaps a more engaged crowd – more on that later) could become a fixture on the US Open calendar. Don’t let a shocking Thursday ruin your overall impression of it.

Loser: USGA

Speaking of those crowds! A common complaint about this year’s US Open was a lack of energy around it – emanating from fans on the ground, through the broadcast and into our homes. This was in stark contrast to Brookline last year, which saw large, boisterous crowds that perhaps bordered on over-enthusiasm at times.

There are a few reasons why this was the case, and they have been studied by experts this Golf Digest piece by Joel Beall. The first is that the LACC is a relatively small course and has some difficult terrain, which means it can’t accommodate crowds the size of what you’d see at other US Open courses. As Beall writes:

The daily number of visitors to LACC is around 23,000. For context, last year’s US Open at The Country Club in Brookline hovered around 30,000 over the weekend, with a more spacious venue — think Oakmont, which last hosted in 2016 — capable of hosting up to 50,000 fans per day.

Then there is the question of who the 23,000 fans were. Per Beall:

Close to 14,000 [tickets] are allocated to suites and hospitality tents, meaning that only 9,000 tickets are classified as general admission. Of the 9,000, it is believed that only half were allocated to the general public as the LACC gobbled up somewhere in the range of 4,000 to 4,500 of those tickets.

So over the weekend, only about 4,000 tickets per day were given to general fans; the remainder was distributed to corporate sponsors and LACC members. It’s not the course’s fault: it’s the USGA’s discretion. Like the setup, which, as described above, could have used some tinkering in a few places.

If people remember this as a “bad” US Open, or come away thinking of the LACC as a bad US Open test, that’s down to the USGA and how they handled this week. Here’s hoping the next time the LACC is in the spotlight — the 2039 championship — the USGA will have learned from its mistakes.

Winner: Phil Mickelson’s Heckler

If you’ve ever wondered what it felt like to be Happy Gilmore and have Sagittarius McGavin’s paid minion follows you around to throw you off your game, well Phil Mickelson could probably give you some insight. At the 9th hole Thursday, Phil went to line up a putt and was met with barbs from a man standing in the stands wearing a sombrero and stick-on mustache. No, I’m not kidding.

In an argument that reporters said lasted about 30 seconds, the man read from a script and took the case with Phil over his joining with LIV (fine); his jilted guys on tour who looked up to him (sure); and also his “Victoria Secret’s sponsorship” and another thing that apparently contained the phrase “red lipstick and nine-inch heels” (huh?).

The man was eventually escorted from the stands, but Mickelson was heckled again on Friday, his 53rd birthday, as he walked from the 14th green to the 15th tee box. Mickelson’s playing partners throughout the two days, Padraig Harrington and Keegan Bradley, said they believed it was the same man who had sought out Phil on Thursday – only with a wig this time instead of a sombrero. While you might think that anyone who dresses up in disguise and goes to a golf tournament to harass one person should be considered a loser, Phil ended up missing the cut after shooting an opening round of 69. So , I guess, maybe mission accomplished?

Loser: Navy team

Shout out to all the weather geeks out there – this US Open was for you.

Seriously: If you like being told about obscure cloud formations and how they can affect moisture levels on a golf course, there was nowhere better to be this weekend than sitting in front of your TV, locked into the NBC broadcast. Yes, the marine layer — which comes off the Pacific Ocean in LA and creates the cloud cover that residents often call “June gloom” — was a definite factor in the game this weekend. But it was also referenced a lot.

I know it had a legitimate impact on the course this week (part of the reason Thursday’s round was so easy was because LACC had a full day of cloud cover). And viewers deserve to have all the information. But when people remember a weather phenomenon, you may need to lighten the references.

Winner: The PGA Tour

Congratulations to the PGA Tour for having a week where people mostly forgot that they just struck a deal with the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund and forever changed the golf landscape. This respite doesn’t last long, but hey, it was probably a nice break for the PR teams.

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