The Winners and Losers of the 2023 U.S. Open

AP/Ringer illustration

Following a wild, hotly-contested, weirdly-scored week at Los Angeles Country Club, Wyndham Clark is a U.S. Open champion and Rory McIlroy will have to wait at least another month to end his major drought. To make sense of all the ups and downs from this national championship, here are our winners and losers from this season’s third major.

Winner: Wyndham Clark

Wyndham Clark doesn’t show a lot of emotion on the golf course. He keeps a stoic face, giving up little whether he nails a birdie putt or bogeys the 70th hole while leading a major. He clarified earlier this week that he’s actually “very emotional. … Deep down inside I want to fist pump every time I make a putt and talk trash and whatever.” But as his final putt rolled in at 18 on Sunday to secure his U.S. Open win, 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) playing cocky; and (3) reminding himself of those first two things. That may seem like a … bold strategy for someone who missed the cut in the only other two U.S. Opens he’d played in, and someone who’s best major finish to that point had been T75 at the 2021 PGA Championship. But Clark’s play this year has given him some reason for having swagger.

He won his first PGA tournament in May at the Wells Fargo Championship. He finished T12 at the Memorial just a couple of weeks ago. And he’s tacked on top-six finishes at the Zurich Classic, 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 difficult positions on the back nine. After entering 15 with a three-shot lead, Clark missed three consecutive greens. His putter couldn’t save him at the par-3 15, committing the field’s only bogey all day on the hole. And an errant drive tossed him into a bunker at 16 and forced him to lay up. But his iron play kept him in contention for a par (even though his putter failed him again). And at 17 and 18, holding on to a suddenly flimsy one-shot lead, it all came together.

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 Sunday, he was only thinking of Clark’s mom—whom the family lost to breast cancer when Wyndham was 19—and just how emotional she’d surely be to see her son lift the U.S. Open trophy.

Small Winner: Me

Not to brag (but definitely to brag): I mentioned Clark as a solid dark horse candidate in our U.S. Open predictions file last week. Hope you bettors out there listened!

Loser: Rory McIlroy … Again

He can’t keep getting away with this. And by “this,” I mean coming this close to winning his fifth major (and first in nine years) and failing 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 honors, a third place at last year’s Open Championship, two fourths, and four fifths. Hell, he’s only missed the cut in majors seven times in that span—that’s almost a 3-to-1 top-10-to-cut ratio! But while his failures down the stretch this week weren’t nearly as dramatic as what happened at St. Andrew’s last summer, this loss was still pretty painful.

Entering the back nine, things seemed to be lining up 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 on the front. That left Rory and Clark to duel it out, and McIlroy has all the experience in that regard. Instead of showing a killer instinct, though, McIlroy continued his weeklong struggle on the back. He plugged 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, opting to hit his drive onto the second fairway to get a better angle. That mostly worked—but he couldn’t get his approach shot in 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 only one birdie. He admitted as much after the round: “The putter, I’ll rue some of the chances I missed,” McIlroy said. “It was that, and then that wedge shot on 14, coming up a little bit short. Those are the couple of things I’ll rue today.”

“As I said yesterday, I’m gonna keep coming back until I get another one,” Rory concluded of his recent major championship bad luck. But it’s getting harder and harder for fans to be optimistic about that. Think about 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’s 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 going to keep this dream of a fifth major alive.

Winner: The Legend of Rickie Fowler

It didn’t end how he or any of his legions of fans wanted. But compare this performance—in which he finished T5 and held 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 U.S. Open, and he famously spent the week at the course practicing and preparing in case he could get into the tournament, only to fly home dejected when it didn’t happen. Last fall, he barely made it into the FedExCup Playoffs (largely thanks to the spots vacated by players who left the PGA for LIV Golf); he fell to 185th in the world in November, his lowest position in at least 12 years; and he’s spent this winter making changes. He has a new caddy on his bag; he’s been working with famed swing coach Butch Harmon, not just on his stroke but also the mental side of his game; and across the first three days of the U.S. Open, he looked largely unflappable—even carding a U.S. 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 final round. But seeing Fowler’s bright orange outfit back in contention was a welcome sight—and an appropriate comeback for a player who’s gone from overrated, to underrated, to somewhat forgotten, to maybe, hopefully, back.

Winner: Los Angeles Country Club

This may be controversial! I’m willing to admit that! But I’d advise that you take this winner in context with my next loser.

LACC hosted its first major championship this week, and the first U.S. 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 were concerned that the course might be too easy for this championship), LACC largely delivered a challenging test.

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

But overall, the course offered plenty of interesting tests. How to play the 6th, for example, which, despite its short length, offered options of laying up to the left, going directly at the green, or laying up to the right (all with a variety of possible outcomes). Or no. 15, which on Saturday became the shortest hole in U.S. Open history at 81 yards but gave people fits and tricky shots all week.

It’s a fascinating course that with a few modifications (and perhaps a more engaged crowd—more on that later) could become a staple on the U.S. Open calendar. Don’t let one shocking Thursday ruin your overall impression of it.

Loser: The USGA

Speaking of those crowds! One common complaint about this year’s U.S. Open was a lack of energy around it—stemming from the fans on the ground, through the broadcast and into our homes. This was in stark contrast to Brookline last year, which saw large, rowdy crowds that perhaps verged on too much enthusiasm at times.

There are a few reasons why this was the case, and they’ve been explored expertly in this Golf Digest piece from Joel Beall. The first is that LACC is a relatively small course, and it has some difficult terrain, meaning it can’t house crowds the size of what you’d see at other U.S. Open courses. As Beall writes:

The daily attendance figure at LACC is roughly 23,000. For context, last year’s U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline hovered around 30,000 on the weekend, with a more spacious site—think Oakmont, which last hosted in 2016—having the ability to host up to 50,000 fans per day.

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

Close to 14,000 [tickets] are allotted for suites and hospitality tents, meaning just 9,000 tickets classify as general admission. Out of the 9,000, it’s believed just half were allotted to the general public, as LACC gobbled up somewhere in the range of 4,000 to 4,500 of those tickets.

So across the weekend, only about 4,000 tickets per day were given to general fans; the rest were handed out to corporate sponsors and LACC members. That isn’t the course’s fault: that’s the discretion of the USGA. As is the setup, which, as detailed above, could have used some tinkering in a few places.

If people remember this as a “bad” U.S. Open, or come away thinking of LACC as a poor U.S. Open test, that falls on the USGA and how they handled this week. Here’s hoping that by the next time 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 Shooter McGavin’s paid henchman follow you around to throw you off your game, well, Phil Mickelson could probably give you some insight. At the 9th hole on Thursday, Phil went to line up a putt and was met with the barbs of a man standing in the grandstand, dressed in a sombrero and a stick-on mustache. No, I’m not kidding.

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

The man was eventually escorted from the grandstand, 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 across the two days, Padraig Harrington and Keegan Bradley, said they thought it was the same man who’d sought Phil out on Thursday—only with a wig this time instead of a sombrero. Now, while you may think that anyone who dresses up in disguise and goes to a golf tournament to heckle one person should be considered a loser, Phil did end up missing the cut after shooting an opening-round 69. So, I guess, maybe mission accomplished?

Loser: The Marine Layer

Shout-out to all the weather geeks out there—this U.S. Open was for you.

Seriously: If you like being told about obscure cloud formations and how they can impact the moisture levels of 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 L.A. and creates the cloud cover residents often call “June gloom”—was a definite factor in play this weekend. But it was also referenced a lot.

I know it had a legitimate impact on the course this week (some of why Thursday’s round was so getable was because LACC had a full day of cloud cover). And viewers deserve to have all the information. But when people are memeing the hell out of a weather phenomenon, maybe you should ease up on the references.

Winner: The PGA Tour

Congrats to the PGA Tour on getting a week where people mostly forgot they just took a deal with the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund and forever changed the landscape of golf. This respite won’t last long, but hey, it was probably a nice break for the PR teams.

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