Wyndham Clark finally began ‘Playing Big’ at the Wells Fargo Championship

It’s hard to fathom that just one calendar year ago, Wyndham Clark arrived at the Wells Fargo Championship winless in his career on the PGA Tour. After a series of failures when the trophy appeared to be there for the taking, the then-29-year-old wondered if he was destined to never win during his career.

Seven days later on May 7, his childhood dream came true by winning one of the Tour’s biggest events on one of the best stages in golf. There’s no faking it around Quail Hollow Club and in four rounds Clark validated just how great he already was and fired a warning shot to the rest of the golf world of what was still to come.

In short order, he went on to become the U.S. Open champion in June, represent Team USA at the Ryder Cup in September, shoot a course-record 60 en route to winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February and climb to No. 3 in the world. But none of that may have happened unless he achieved his long-anticipated breakthrough at Quail Hollow in Charlotte when Clark shot a final-round 3-under 68 for a four-shot victory over Xander Schauffele at the 2023 Wells Fargo Championship to earn his first career win on the PGA Tour.

2023 Wells Fargo Championship
2023 Wells Fargo Championship

Wyndham Clark salutes the gallery after putting out to win the 2023 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. (Photo: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

“I’ve dreamt about this since I was probably 6 years old,” Clark said that day. “Since I’ve been on the PGA Tour, you fantasize about it all the time, and I’ve done it multiple times this year where I catch myself daydreaming about winning, and to do it at this golf course against this competition is better than I could ever have imagined.”

Clark struggled to hold back tears as he sank a bogey putt on the 18th hole to seal the win, finishing the tournament with a 72-hole aggregate of 19-under 265, the second-lowest score in relation to par in tournament history.

No one had ever doubted Clark’s talent nor his work ethic, but in order to be a champion he first had to learn to harness his emotions. Since a young age, Clark has been called a winner. That’s what his mom, Lise, who was a national sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics before dying of breast cancer at age 54 in 2013, used to call him. Clark grew up in Colorado. It was his mother who first took him to the driving range, and they were always close. Before she passed, she told her son that she wanted him to ‘play big,’ a life motto that has stuck with him ever since.

“She was always kind of my rock in my life,” Clark said. “In junior golf, there are times when you’re so mad, and you feel like you should have done better, or you’re embarrassed with how you played, and she was always there to comfort me.”

Without his mother, who died when he was 19, Clark was lost. About a year later, he contemplated quitting golf.

“When I was on the golf course I couldn’t have been angrier. I was breaking clubs when I didn’t even hit that bad of a shot. I was walking off golf courses,” Clark recalled. “Just drove as fast as I could. Didn’t know where I was going. The pressure of golf and then not having my mom there and someone that I could call was really tough for me.” On multiple occasions at Oklahoma State, he emptied his locker as if he was going to quit only for his then-coach Mike McGraw to pick up his gear and put it back. But eventually, McGraw decided that Clark needed to work on himself, not his swing.

“He said, ‘Hey, I think it’s just best if you step away from golf. At first I really was mad. I’m competitive. I didn’t want to not play, and I thought it was bad if you redshirted, that you weren’t good enough,” Clark recalled. “But it was also the best thing for me. I owe Mike a lot for that.”

When Clark returned to the team under new coach Alan Bratton, he remained intense, and when he didn’t make the squad for the 2016 NCAA tournament, he decided to transfer to Oregon. At the same time, John Ellis returned there to his alma mater to serve as an assistant coach to Casey Martin, who told him, “You’re going to be watching over this guy a lot.”

2016 East Lake Cup
2016 East Lake Cup

Wyndham Clark of Oregon at the 2016 East Lake Cup at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I heard of this talented kid but there are a lot of those in the college ranks,” Ellis recalled. “What stood out was that he wanted to be the best in the world and he was willing to work harder than everybody.”

Clark was regularly beating his teammates shooting rounds of 67s and 68s but Ellis would shoot 64 or 65. His message to Clark was simple: “I couldn’t make it on Tour. If you can’t beat me, how are you going to make it out there?” Under Ellis’s watchful eye, Clark blossomed into the 2017 Pac-12 individual champion and was named Golfweek’s Collegiate Player of the Year.

Unfortunately, for Martin, Ellis did such a good job that when Clark turned pro, he took Ellis with him to be his caddie. Ellis, who had a cup of coffee on the Tour, had played enough at the highest level to realize Clark had all the tools to be a star.

But Clark still hadn’t dealt with his demons and, while he reached the Tour in short measure, there were times when he became so frustrated with his play that he was ready to quit again. Indeed, he withdrew from the Rocket Mortgage Classic in 2020, citing a back injury but he could’ve just as easily cited his attitude. Strangely enough, Ellis had a reputation during his playing days for being a hot head too, the type of player who didn’t hesitate to snap a club in half if it was misbehaving.

But as a caddie for the past six years, he’d been a calming influence for Clark. As Clark continued to run hot, Ellis and the rest of Clark’s team orchestrated an intervention in November 2022 and suggested he meet with Julie Elion, a mental coach who has helped the likes of Phil Mickelson and Jimmy Walker win majors. He was reluctant at first, but as part of their work, Clark has benefited from meditating, praying, keeping a journal and setting daily goals. It isn’t Elion’s style to take credit – “I just held up the mirror,” she said – but Clark and his team are quick to say his improved attitude and growing confidence were the missing ingredient in his success.

2023 Wells Fargo Championship
2023 Wells Fargo Championship

Wyndham Clark hits his tee shot on the 16th during the third round of the 2023 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. (Photo: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

At the Wells Fargo Championship, Clark’s mental game was put to the test. He opened with a pair of 67s and then catapulted into the lead with a remarkable 8-under 63 in the third round. That day, Clark hit the first 17 greens before tugging his approach to the final green just enough that his ball settled on the fringe, missing perfection by inches.

“I mean, no, I wasn’t thinking about that,” he said, when asked if he was aware of what he almost accomplished. “I was more thinking I just hope that ball’s not going in the water … the only stat I care about is where I finish at the end of the tournament.”

Clark and Schauffele, who shot 64, had played so well on Saturday that they were three strokes clear of the field, and the trophy hunt turned into a two-man fight on a sunny Sunday.

Clark had come close to winning – he had 14 top 10s on the PGA Tour – but he struggled in final rounds, getting “too amped up,” and dwelling on bad shots. He had zero PGA Tour wins in 133 previous starts and in his dark moments, he would complain that he was destined to never win a Tour event.

“I know that sounds crazy because I’ve only been out here five years, but I had a lot of chances to where I was within two or three shots either going into the back nine or starting on a Sunday and I always seem to fall short, and not only that, but seem like I fell back in positions,” Clark explained. “I think in the past I sometimes shied away maybe from those pressure moments because I would get too amped up.”

Leading into the Tour’s annual stop in Charlotte, it seemed more than ever that it was a matter of when not if he’d win. He was trending in the right direction, finishing in the top six in three of the last five tournaments he’d entered, including a third-place finish at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a two-man team event, in his previous start.

Clark, who arrived in Charlotte as the world’s 80th ranked player, opened the final round with a two-shot lead, but he pulled his tee shot left on No. 1 over the cart path and made a shaky bogey. Schauffele sense an opportunity and vaulted into the lead with birdies at Nos. 3 and 7. Was this going to be another case of Clark buckling under the pressure of trying to win his first tournament? Not this time.

“I just told myself to relax, I have a lot more holes,” said Clark. “In the past, it always seemed so tough for me on Sundays. Today, I wouldn’t let my mind go in that direction. I just kept reminding myself that I can play great golf. … And I didn’t want to be the person that I was in previous Sundays in previous years, because that person probably shoots 2- or 3-over (par) today, or even more, and loses his head and gets mad out there and doesn’t control his emotions.”

The momentum changed between the eighth and 12th holes, with Clark gaining a stroke on each of them. He chipped to within 4 feet at the par-5 eighth and rolled in the birdie putt to pull back into a tie and then took the lead for good at the turn when Schauffele’s par putt lipped out on No. 9. Clark kept the pressure on sinking birdie putts at No. 10 and 12 sandwiched in between a Schauffele bogey on No. 11 and his own dazzling up and down from the bunker, pushing the lead to four strokes with six holes left to play.

“A buzzsaw,” is how Schauffele described the way Clark stormed back.

Clark matched Schauffele’s birdies at the 14th and 15th holes to maintain a four-shot edge heading into the difficult closing three holes known as the Green Mile. As former PGA Championship winner Rich Beem, who was commentating for Sky Sports, said to fellow commentator Colt Knost, “How is somebody 20 under par on this golf course?”

Clark led the field in Strokes-Gained Tee to Green, greens in regulation and SG: Approach, and ranked third in SG: Putting – that’s how – a lethal combination.Clark played the final three holes in 1 over, bogeying the 18th before hugging Ellis and lifting his arms aloft. Clark won $3.6 million out of the total purse of $20 million with the victory. It also convinced Clark once and for all that he had found a better mental space.

“Finally winning, it was like, ‘All right, this stuff actually works,’” Clark said of his emphasis early last season on the mental side of the game.

“The Wells Fargo was so healing for him,” Elion said in as episode of season two of the Netflix documentary “Full Swing, which traced Clark’s journey. “That lifted years and years of pain.”

The weight of expectation had been lifted, too, said Clark’s college coach, Martin: “Like, ‘Oh, I’ve justified my talent. I’m not a failure,’ you know, kind of a deal. He is a huge talent. I mean, he’s not a medium talent. He is a massive, massive talent. I mean, top 10 player in the world talent wise, for sure. If he just, you know, doesn’t get in his own way, which is easier said than done.”

What a beautiful mind Clark had all along. He proved to himself at Quail Hollow that he’s one of the best players in the world and he’s been ‘playing big’ ever since.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek