When Wyndham Clark was a kid, his mother, Lise, would tuck short written notes in his knapsack, little missives meant to lift his spirits or motivate him during the day. Clark tried to hide the notes from classmates because they became a source of teasing, especially when he was younger.
During interviews in the 10 years since Lise Clark died of breast cancer at 55, Clark has often said, “I’d give anything to have those notes now.”
But Clark, among the leaders after the second round of this week’s U.S. Open, has no trouble recalling the most lasting of his mother’s messages — at least as it relates to his professional golf career.
“When my mom was sick,” Clark, 29, said on Friday, “I was in college and she told me: ‘Hey, play big. Play for something bigger than yourself. You have a platform to either witness, or help, or be a role model for so many people.’
“And I’ve taken that to heart. When I’m out there playing, I want to do that for her.”
Clark conjured the memory in the wake of two consecutive stellar rounds at the national golf championship at Los Angeles Country Club. After shooting a sparkling 64 in Thursday’s first round, Clark followed it up with a three-under-par 67, which had his name atop the U.S. Open leaderboards for several hours before the Friday afternoon wave of golfers teed off.
Clark’s distinguished play was not a fluke. He has steadily been climbing the world golf rankings with six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour during the 2022-23 season. Last month, he earned his first tour victory at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., a milestone that Clark, now ranked 32nd in the world, said significantly bolstered his belief in himself.
“It was big, to me, it felt like a major championship,” he said on Friday. “I just feel like I can compete with the best players in the world, and I think of myself as one of them.”
Several years ago, Clark did not have the same confidence. In the months after the death of his mother, who had introduced him to golf as a toddler, Clark struggled on and off the course.
When he competed poorly, Clark would storm off the golf course and, he said, “just drive away as fast as I could, I didn’t even know where I was going.”
“The pressure of golf and then not having my mom there and someone to call was really tough,” he said after his Wells Fargo victory last month.
He missed cut after cut and withdrew from Oklahoma State University before eventually settling at the University of Oregon. Slowly, he said, he found his equilibrium. He debuted on the PGA Tour in 2017, and while the acclimation to the vicissitudes of a pro golfer’s life took time, by last season his play was consistent enough to earn more than $1.5 million in prize money.
“I was building my confidence bit by bit, which is, of course, so vital in this game — or any profession,” Clark said.
His self-assurance was on display as he played the L.A. Country Club’s devilish par-5 14th hole on Friday. Clark’s second shot settled in deep, gnarly rough about 30 yards short of the green. His third required a gutsy flop shot from a sketchy lie that had to land with spin and precision on a blazing fast, sloping green.
He kept the shot on the green and then drained the 13-foot putt for a spectacular birdie. After his round, Clark, with a wide smile, conceded that his third shot was “very risky.”
He estimated that in a normal PGA Tour event, he would successfully execute the shot 70 percent of the time. Friday’s round, though, was conducted under the withering pressure of a U.S. Open, so the chance of averting a bogey, Clark said, “was way less because you have the nerves.”
But Clark insisted he never wavered about what shot he had to try.
He would play big.
“When I’m out there playing, I want to do that for her,” Clark said of his mother. “I want to show everyone the person I am and how much joy I have out there playing.
“I was walking the fairway yesterday and just kind of smiling because I was playing well. And I go, ‘Man, I wish you could be here, Mom, because it’s a dream come true to be doing this at the highest level.’”
He added: “But I know she’s proud of me. I am who I am today because of her. I mean, I’m getting a little choked up. I miss her, and everything I do out here is a lot for her.”