Players Championship

Players Championship: Wyndham Clark chunking his shot at 17 into the water might be why he wins this tournament

March 16, 2024

Mike Ehrmann

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The chunk echoed off the hospitality suites that surround the hole and sounded like the thud soil makes when striking a lowered coffin. Sorry for the macabre description, but at that moment the portrait seemed fitting, as Wyndham Clark’s chances at the Players Championship appeared to meet a watery grave.

Clark barely watched his tee shot on the infamous par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass take flight before he dropped his club and turned his head down in disdain, his poor strike providing enough feedback to know his ball would not be in flight for long. By the time Clark did look up the “OOOOOOs” of the thousands around him had pitched to “AWWWWWWWs,” and because that wasn’t enough the divot he had produced was now on his face, a reminder that this sport is democratic in its cruelty.

For three days, Clark had been infallible. He built a four-shot lead over 36 holes against the PGA Tour’s best at one of its toughest tracks. He hit 15 or more greens in the first and second rounds and gained three strokes against the field in each day, the first time any player has done that since the PGA Tour started keeping stats of such ridiculous things. Even on Saturday, when his driver was off and his approach game wasn’t much better, Clark kept steady by scrambling from places that would break lesser souls. Xander Schauffele might have caught him on the board, but Clark staying afloat when the world tried to sink him only underlined we were watching a killer in the making, a big-game hunter who already owned a major championship and two signature-event wins looking very much like he would add Ponte Vedra’s golden boy to the collection.

And then came the 17th. The short little hole that can make the biggest men feel small. On Saturday, it measured 123 yards. Clark’s shot came up 20 yards short. Infallible is a blasphemous thought in golf, and Clark was paying for our sins.

“I mean, I'm not throwing [my caddie] under the bus by any means, but it was probably a perfect sand wedge,” Clark said afterwards. “He thought if I nuked it, it could get on top. Kind of, as we were walking to put the ball down, he's like, Let's take a little off a full sand wedge. As I was over the ball I kind of got to the top and I was like, take a little off and then I just kind of deceled and chunked it. It wasn't really a lack of focus or anything. It just was honestly a poor swing.”

If that was all, Clark would just be another casualty, a B-roll highlight for this tournament rolled out annually to tell audiences what they already know. No one would’ve blamed Clark had he trekked to the drop area, walked off with double-bogey 5 and walked in to the clubhouse bar and asked for something hard to take away the pain.

Instead, Clark passed on the drop area and stayed at the scene of the crime. To hell with self-pity; there was work to be done. While momentarily looking like the climatic scene from "Tin Cup," Clark had no more appetite for drama. His second try at the 17th found land, and the ensuing putt from seven feet disappeared. For those of you scoring at home, Clark walked away with a bogey 4.

“Yeah, it's massive," Clark said of the one saved shot. "It's unfortunate on a hole that's so iconic and has a bunch of trouble to have kind of your worst swing of the day. But yeah, I followed it with a great swing and a great putt. I'm in the final group tomorrow, which is huge.

“I'm hoping that's a huge point in the tournament and we look back after tomorrow and look at that hole and say, 'hey, that was maybe the shot and the putt that meant it all.'”

Yes, it was a bogey. A bogey in a day where a four-shot lead turned into a one-shot deficit. But it was also one of those “good bogeys” that are synonymous with the U.S. Open, a bogey that makes Sunday matter. A bogey that gave us a glimpse into the man doing the hunting.

Clark has been open about his struggles with mental health, about feeling lost and losing years to anger and hurt and sorrow. The rage became such an issue that his team had an intervention of sorts, telling Wyndham he needed to address the suffering before it swallowed him whole. Clark responded by putting in the work and sought professional help. Progress wasn't linear, but he believed his direction was true so soldiered on through the doubt. He has been adamant that his ascent over the past year could not have happened without seeing a sports psychologist.

It’s one thing to say it, another to prove it. Because there are many talents on this tour. What separates the really good from the great is standing firm in the storm. This tournament, this course, this 17th hole encapsulate that test, and Clark is quickly showing what echelon he belongs in. Any doubt to that only needs to look to Saturday evening, when a shot that could have finished him proved the opposite.