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PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP

Players Championship: Wyndham Clark emerges as major threat in game's biggest events

March 15, 2024
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Kevin C. Cox

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — In 1979, Fuzzy Zoeller won the green jacket as a Masters rookie, and nobody has done it since. Wyndham Clark makes his Augusta National debut in a month, and after the display we witnessed at the Players Championship on Friday—and after 10 months of lighting it up in the game's biggest events—you could be forgiven if you tap him as the man to break the Zoeller curse.

What started as a clustered leaderboard during the second round at TPC Sawgrass quickly turned into a runaway as Clark followed his opening 35 with five birdies in six holes, racing out to 14 under and a five-shot lead on his nearest chasers. Scottie Scheffler nursed a hurt shoulder, Matt Fitzpatrick made a painful double, others staggered or ran in place and, before you could blink, Clark was an island unto himself.

Should anyone be surprised? At the start of 2023, Clark was 163rd in the world, but he capped off a solid spring with a breakthrough win at the Wells Fargo, a signature event. He didn't just win, either; he sprinted away from the field, prevailing by four shots over Xander Schauffele and eight shots over third place. You got the sense then, even though it was only his first PGA Tour win, that we were looking at a legitimately great player who had finally quieted his demons and was ready to contend at the big events. (Clark, who had once been seen as a star in the making, struggled significantly after the death of his mother, fighting bad golf and negative emotions as he failed to reach his potential.)

Still, nobody could have predicted how fast he'd rise; how he'd win the U.S. Open in June or grab a second signature event win at Pebble Beach this winter or crush the field over the first two days at Sawgrass. Clark, now No. 5 in the World Ranking, has had his share of mediocre finishes, and the odd missed cut, but up until last week when he finished second at Bay Hill at another signature event, he seems to save his best for the biggest moments.

"I guess you guys could say what you want on that," he said after his round Friday, choosing to downplay his second gear at the marquee moments. "I just really don't know what it is. I would like to play great every week. I really looked at how Scottie [Scheffler] has been playing this year and last year and I use him as someone to try to keep up with, and he plays good every week."

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Kevin C. Cox

In fact, he didn't quite see this one coming. Early in the week, the omens weren't great.

"I didn't have the greatest prep on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday," he admitted. "I was a little sore, had some things to do, had to move hotel rooms a couple times, so I just had a bunch of things going on."

When pressed, he said that his first hotel room had given him a pair of double beds, which wasn't going to work with his girlfriend Julia in tow. That problem fixed, he still wasn't up to his usual standard in the practice round, but it didn't matter; when the moment came, he was ready. There's an inevitable comparison here to Brooks Koepka, though of course Clark's resume is nowhere near that level quite yet. But when you see a series of average results interrupted by massive wins, including at a major, that name naturally comes to mind. If Clark can finish the job at the Players on the weekend, it will further cement the narrative heading into major season. (He has played in eight majors, missed four cuts. However, his only major start since winning the U.S. Open is a T-33 at the Open Championship.)

He was phenomenal on the front nine Friday—his second nine of the day—with two tap-in birdies to start the fun, an 11-footer on 3, a dart to four feet on his approach at 4, and an 18-footer for his fourth birdie at 6. Even his par saves had the faint aura of spectacle, particularly the 22-footer on 5 to preserve his runaway momentum. And just when it seemed that he'd returned to earth with a pair of pars, he closed out his round with yet another birdie, converting a nine-footer on 9 for his 65. That two-hour hot streak was enough to lap everyone in the morning wave and put out a difficult number to catch for the likes of Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele teeing off in the early afternoon—both would have to match his 65 to equal his score.

Even before the torrid stretch, during his self-described "ho-hum" first nine, he played intelligent golf. As an example, he opted to take an iron off the tee on 18 for the second straight day, a concession to safety.

"Sometimes you just have to punt," he said. "I hit it where I had a full 7-iron in and just said, hey, this is not a birdie hole for me right now, and just we'll move on and try to eliminate any big numbers."

And after his par, he was off to the races.

There are 36 holes left to play, and plenty that could go wrong for Clark, or not quite right enough. But the thoroughbred quality he's shown at his signature event wins, and the steady nerve at the U.S. Open, seem like solid precedents for another win. If he pulls it off, he'll have bagged his latest big game, and move one step closer to becoming the most feared golfer at the game's biggest events.