LOS ANGELES — As with any captivating Hollywood production, the 123rd U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club had no shortage of drama. The plot unfolded in an unfamiliar setting of the LACC North Course where no one quite knew what to expect. One minute golfers were contemplating the historically low scores on the front nine, the next bemoaning the pitfalls of the treacherous back nine.
Fans rejoiced to see Rickie Fowler, who bore a strong resemblance to his peak 2014 self, maintaining a share of the lead through 54 holes. If Fowler’s resurgence weren’t enough, PGA Tour protagonist Rory McIlroy looked poised to claim his fifth major title on Sunday.
In the end, it was neither of the fan favorites, but Wyndham Clark who emerged victorious. Clark captured his first win on the PGA Tour at the Wells Fargo Championship five weeks ago and had only made the cut in two majors before this weekend. How’s that for a plot twist?
With only one major remaining on the men’s professional golf calendar, our experts take a look at what comes next:
Is Wyndham Clark here to stay?
Mark Schlabach: Even before last month’s victory at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, Clark had been trending in the right direction. He had five other top 10s, including a solo fifth at the Valspar Championship and sixth at the Corales Puntacana Championship. There’s no question his victory in the Wells Fargo Championship, a designated event with a loaded field, took his confidence to another level.
Clark has a complete game. He ranked seventh in strokes gained: off the tee (1.36); seventh in strokes gained: short game (0.98); fourth in strokes gained: putting (1.81); and was seventh in driving distance (325.2 yards). In the final round Sunday, he stared down McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Fowler and didn’t flinch.
Paolo Uggetti: There’s a lot to like about Clark’s game, which doesn’t rely too much on one particular skill, but rather sees him get the most out of nearly every club in his bag. This year, Clark is 15th in strokes gained on the PGA Tour as well as fourth in driving distance. It’s as good a formula as any to not just compete on tour, but win. Major championships, however, are a different question.
Clark’s putting was good enough to win at LACC this week, but the question is whether it will be the same going forward. There’s no doubt he has the skill to compete at another major, and at age 29, there’s a good chance he will compete in multiple. But given the depth of the sport in this era, it’s easy to see him never winning another one too. Only time will tell.
Who else surprised you in L.A.?
Schlabach: It was another good week for England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who tied for fifth at 5 under. He became the fourth player to post multiple rounds of 63 in major championships. If not for his 3-over 73 in the first round, he would have been right there in the hunt on Sunday. Fleetwood, who is still searching for his first victory on U.S. soil (he has six international wins), has three top-five finishes in his past five starts. He was able to bounce back from a playoff loss to Nick Taylor at last week’s RBC Canadian Open quickly.
Uggetti: It’s impossible to say Scheffler surprised me, but I will use this space to rave about how incredible it is that he was, once again, in contention to win on Sunday and has now finished top 10 in nine out of his last 13 majors. That level of consistency at the sport’s biggest stages is rare and bodes well for his major count going forward. What’s striking about Scheffler’s ability to rise to the top at majors is that he does it even when his game isn’t at his best.
The 2022 Masters champion has been struggling mightily with his putter lately, even changing to a slightly bigger putter ahead of the U.S. Open. It helped, but not much. Scheffler still struggled on the greens and yet, by Sunday’s end, there he was at the top of the leaderboard, in third place at yet another major.
Where does Rory McIlroy go from here?
Schlabach: McIlroy says he has already turned his attention to the last major championship of the season, The Open Championship, which will take place at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England, on July 20-23. McIlroy will be among the favorites to win there, and it will be the 34th major in which he’ll attempt to end his nearly nine-year drought without winning one.
Coming up short again at LACC can’t be easy for him. He has finished in the top eight in seven of the past nine majors, including two runners-up and a third. He didn’t make a birdie after the first hole on Sunday. His putting wasn’t great, and he didn’t give himself many chances down the stretch. It has been 3,234 days since he won his last major at the 2014 PGA Championship.
“When I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet,” he said Sunday. “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”
Uggetti: To Hoylake! If there’s anything that can perhaps help push McIlroy over the top at a major, it’s some familiarity and good vibes from a place where he has already won once. The pressure will no doubt be on as he’ll likely be favored to win, but after needing just a few more putts to fall at last year’s Open and this year’s U.S. Open, it does feel like he’s closer than anyone (well, maybe not closer than Scheffler) to adding to his major total.
Can Rickie Fowler carry this mojo into the rest of the season?
Schlabach: Despite posting a 5-over 75 on Sunday, it was a great week for Fowler. His irons and putter let him down in the final round, but there’s no question he’s close to getting back to the form he had earlier in his career, when he finished in the top 10 in each of the four majors in 2014. He has his stroke and swagger back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win before the end of the season.
Fowler: ‘This is the best I’ve felt in my career’
Co-leader Rickie Fowler recaps his third round of 70 at the U.S. Open and considers the enormity of winning his first major in golf.
Uggetti: I think so. Fowler has been adamant all week that he’s playing some of his best golf, that he’s freed up and isn’t afraid to fail. That bodes well for him going forward. This finish feels like a preview of a more consistent Fowler, which we’ve already seen on the PGA Tour. So far this year he’s got six top-10 finishes and is top 10 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained total and strokes gained on approach shots. He’s hitting the ball just as good, if not better, then he did when he was at his peak in 2014. This version of Fowler, however, feels smarter, more mature and also more fearless. He’s here to stay.
What were your thoughts on LACC as a U.S. Open venue?
Schlabach: The entire week felt like a different kind of U.S. Open. Players like Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland (who rarely complains about anything) and defending U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick clearly didn’t like the course. They complained of too many blind tee shots, too much slope in the fairways and balls funneling to the same spots, regardless of a player’s line.
The atmosphere wasn’t great until the weekend. The USGA allotted only 22,000 tickets a day, and most of them went to LACC members, sponsors and corporate types. There wasn’t much room for a big build-out on the 18th green, and the first tee was on a practice green near the clubhouse. It was different. The U.S. Open is scheduled to return to LACC in 2039. Some players might not want it to go back there, but I’m guessing the USGA won’t care. Those skyboxes and suites brought a pretty penny this past week.
Uggetti: It depends on how you look at it. There is fair criticism to be doled out to both the USGA and LACC for the ticketing situation, which reportedly left only about 4,500 tickets for fans not connected to the club, and the infrastructure did not allow the 22,000 fans on hand to really congregate in a way that would create an ideal U.S. Open atmosphere. The golf course, however, was sublime.
Despite much of the hoopla on Thursday that this setup and course was not up to U.S. Open standards following two 62s, the winning score was only 10-under, high but not as high as it seemed it could be after Day 1. Despite the criticism from some players, it’s impossible to argue that the course produced a worthy winner while also giving us a compelling array of shot-making and holes that we typically don’t see on the PGA Tour or any other major championship venue. LACC was unique and there’s something to be said for that. Whether the U.S. Open actually returns here in 2039 like they said they will remains to be seen.
Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Max Homa didn’t make the cut. Whose game should we be worried about with one major remaining on the calendar?
Schlabach: No question it’s JT. While Homa must do some soul-searching on his performance in majors, Thomas seems completely lost right now. Thomas said he isn’t injured, so it’s hard to explain how one of the best players in the world can post an 11-over 81 in the second round and a 14-over 154 total through 36 holes.
Thomas said it’s the lowest he has felt during his PGA Tour career. He said his scores were “humiliating and embarrassing.” He has just two top-10 finishes in 14 starts this season. He missed the cut at the Masters, tied for 65th at the PGA Championship and then missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Golf can be a cruel game.
Uggetti: It definitely seems like something is up with all of them, but if there’s anyone I’m truly worried about it’s Thomas after being one of the few players at LACC this week who shot a round above 80. It’s unclear what the cause is for this slump, but it’s worrisome. Thomas also has the ability — perhaps more than the other two — to snap out of it at a moment’s notice.
While Homa is still searching for his first major title and Spieth is hoping to recapture the magic he had early in his career, Thomas won a major just last year. The drop-off has been steep enough that it’s fair to wonder if he needs to change something up to try and break through again.
Turning our attention to the Open, who is going to win in Hoylake?
Schlabach: Give me Rory. He has been knocking on the door at majors too often to not finally get rewarded. I liked the patience and discipline he showed at LACC. He has realized he doesn’t have to bomb it off the tee every time. In 2014, Rory became only the sixth player to go wire-to-wire to win an Open Championship. It was at Royal Liverpool. He beat Fowler and Sergio Garcia by 2 strokes.
Uggetti: Maybe I’m just buying what McIlroy is selling, but it’s hard to see him not winning one, as he said “sooner or later.” We rarely get storybook endings in sports and even though winning at the Old Course in St. Andrews last year would have fit that bill, it would be something else if McIlroy returned to Royal Liverpool nine years later and won his fifth major.