LOS ANGELES — Someone is about to have their heart broken by the U.S. Open today.
They will walk to the first tee at Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, most likely feeling excited but nervous. They will leave the 18th green, hours later, deflated and demoralized.
We’ll hear the usual clichés — I tried my best, I just got outplayed; I know I’ll be stronger because of this; it’s just golf — but deep down, we know this one will sting. Part of what makes a major championship so compelling is how much it hurts if it happens to slip away. The gulf between 1st and 2nd is emotionally immeasurable. You can’t win a major without an intense desire to do so, but it’s the same desire that leaves you vulnerable to crippling disappointment.
All four men atop the leaderboard have much to gain with a victory. But the pressure each man is facing is slightly different. If you’re looking for clues as to which one might lift the trophy, just ask yourself: Who is best equipped to handle the possibility of more heartache?
It might be Rickie Fowler.
He has been close like this before, flirting with career-defining victories, only to see them slip away time and time again. Over a decade, his youthful potential slowly morphed into a sheen of underachievement. Then one day, he found himself lost in the golfing wilderness, needing to tear apart his swing and rebuild it just to survive. A win would mean a great deal to Fowler, a prophecy fulfilled and a legacy re-written at age 34. But a loss would be unlikely to break him. He is, in a way, playing with house money. There was a time, not long ago, when a moment like this seemed unthinkable. Just a year ago, he couldn’t even get into the U.S. Open and had to fly home and contemplate his future after practicing all week as the first alternate at Brookline Country Club.
“After going through the last few years, I'm not scared to fail,” Fowler said. “I've dealt with that. We'll just go leave it all out there. I'm not scared to be wherever we're at.”
It might, however, be Rory McIlroy.
He too has been here before, on the cusp of history, only to see someone else play better and snatch it away. The sting of letting the Open Championship at St. Andrews slip from his grasp in 2022 was immense, and some of those feelings may still linger. Next year’s PGA Championship would represent a decade since McIlroy has won a major, and there has been plenty of disappointment in that journey, a lot of searching as McIlroy figured out who he wanted to be away from golf. He believes he is better for it.
“I feel like I've showed a lot of resilience in my career, a lot of ups and downs, and I keep coming back,” McIlroy said. “And whether that means that I get rewarded or I get punched in the gut or whatever it is, I'll always keep coming back.”
Lately, he’s found himself pulling up old footage on YouTube, trying to channel a hint of his youthful arrogance, or at least the freedom that accompanied it. But what surprised him was how much patience he displayed back then, even though there wasn’t a hint of gray in his hair and it felt like his whole career was in front of him.
“I actually couldn't believe how many irons and 3-woods and stuff I was hitting off the tee,” McIlroy said. “It set something off in my mind about, you know how to do this. You know how to play smart. You don't have to hit driver all the time. Yes, it's a big weapon, it's a big advantage. But I keep saying I've got more weapons in my arsenal now than I did back then, so I may as well use them.”
It might, however, be Scottie Scheffler.
In one sense, he faces the least amount of pressure of anyone near the top of the board. He is having a historically-great season from tee to green, but he just can’t get his putter to cooperate. He has the least amount of scar tissue in majors (for now).
Bad putting can slowly drive even the best players to the brink of madness, but we aren’t there yet with Scheffler. He is still playing with house money. Coming up short after starting the day three shots behind would feel like a missed opportunity, but it would not weigh as heavily on him as it would Fowler or McIlroy. Scheffler hasn’t been worn down (yet) by the weight of expectations the way they have. He might also be, more than anyone of his generation, built for this.
“I like competing. I like playing against the best players. I like hard golf courses,” Scheffler said.” So I guess those all kind of line up with the majors. I just feel like the challenge of everything suits my game better than some of the easier tests that we see on TOUR throughout the year.”
It might, in the end, be Wyndham Clark.
His resume is the thinnest, by far, of the contenders. He’s only played in six majors in his career and missed the cut in four of them. He has one career win, and it came five weeks ago at the Wells Fargo. A year ago, Clark was ranked 241st in the world, and although he has emerged as a promising young player, this may be his best chance to win a major. As Fowler can attest, potential is great until it suddenly becomes a burden.
Clark, however, knows what real heartache feels like.
When he was four, his mother, Lise, was diagnosed with breast cancer but underwent treatment for two years and became cancer free. When Clark was in college at Oklahoma State, her cancer returned and a year later, she died at age 55. It sent Clark into a spiral of anger and depression. It took him years to grieve properly, and he contemplated quitting golf numerous times. What kept him going was a message his mom delivered to him when she got sick: Play for something bigger than yourself.
Clark couldn’t stop thinking about her this week, particularly after his first round 64.
“I was walking down yesterday and I kind of was just smiling as 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 in front of friends and family that are out here,’ ” Clark said. “I wish she could be here. But I know she's proud of me, and she's made a huge impact on my life. I am who I am today because of her. She was kind of my rock and my always-there supporter. So when things were tough or when things were going great, she was always there to keep me grounded and either bring me up or keep the high going. Yeah, I mean, I'm getting a little choked up. She's everything, and I miss her, and everything I do out here is a lot for her.”
Intellectually, a single round of golf shouldn’t define anyone. There are too many variables, and the bounces are too random, to extrapolate it into a legacy. But that’s a big part of why we watch, why we slog through hours of commercial interruptions and why we sit on the edge of the couch, nervous and anxious, praying for birdies.
The potential for more heartache always looms, but that’s what makes us care.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org