PONTE VEDRA BEACH—Wyndham Clark began to chase, but something deep inside signaled doubt, his left foot defying physics by freezing the rest of his body in place to corroborate what he was about to do was not premature. Either momentum or conviction or being on the precipice of the sensational overruled because the chase for his Titleist resumed, yet in the time that his left foot rose to when it returned to the ground his ball that had been half-in was now all-the-way out.

The reigning U.S. Open champ turned from the hole, the brim of his ballcap raised halfway up his forehead. He gazed towards the stadium suites in the distance but really looking off into nothing in particular. He looked betrayed. He looked indignant. He looked like a man who made 4 when he needed a 3.

Clark’s right hand left his putter to cover his mouth, although he couldn’t hide from the truth we all could see: This is a game that can treat us with great unkindness, and it does not discriminate in its cruelty.

Wyndham Clark did not lose the Players Championship. Scottie Scheffler won it, successfully defending the title for the first time in this tournament’s 50-year history, with a tour-de-force performance that begs serious questions regarding how good this cat is and where he ultimately might go. But for all the fireworks Scheffler and this tournament produced over the past four days, the biggest burst belonged to the stick of dynamite that didn’t pop.

“Yeah, it was coming with some speed, too,” Clark said, attempting to explain the unexplainable. “I don’t know how that putt doesn’t go in. It was kind of right center with like a foot to go, and I knew it was going to keep breaking, but it had speed and I thought it was going to good inside left, and even when it kind of lipped, I thought it would lip in. I’m pretty gutted it didn’t go in.”

Gutted is an undersell. Walking from the 18th green to player scoring, Clark floated like a ghost, knowing he was no longer of this world he tried to conquer yet equally unable to leave it. He had labored like hell just to give himself a chance, starting with a gumption-filled 4 on Saturday evening following a chunked water ball at the 17th. After doing no wrong for the first two days, Clark was clearly fighting his swing, and perhaps himself, this weekend at TPC Sawgrass. He was technically tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele early in Sunday’s round, but for most of the day he appeared stuck in neutral. Bogeys at the 10th and 13th, coupled with a par at the drivable par-4 12th, dropped Clark three shots off the pace. He missed a good look for birdie at the 15th and a very-makable eagle try at the 16th came up short.

Only Clark continued to answer, and answer with vigor, hitting one of the best shots of the day at the 17th where he converted what was left. He was now one back, he now had hope … even though all golfers know that it’s the hope that kills you.


Mike Ehrmann

Before we turn to the putt that wasn’t, we ask: Is it easier to miss like Brian Harman? He had a chance to tie Scheffler with a birdie putt from the same spot, with the same line, just minutes before. Harman, the literal and proverbial Bulldog, who won the claret jug in front of a hostile crowd by responding with a doggedness that sucked the life out of the very people attempting to stand in his way. If anyone could drop this putt, in this moment, it was Harman. His ball never scared the hole.

Is it easier to miss like Xander Schauffele? Perhaps miss should be plural. Schauffele began the day one-shot ahead and held the lead until the better part of the afternoon. Then he made back-to-back bogeys at the 14th and 15th and carded birdie when he had a good look at eagle at the 16th. Schauffele responded with a beautiful swing at the 17th to give himself a seven-footer for bird, and with Scheffler in the house at 20 under a birdie-birdie finish would have bestowed Schauffele the blue-chip win his resume lacks. Instead, Schauffele’s seven-footer didn’t touch the cup. He blew his drive at the 18th into the pine straw, and the ensuing approach landed somewhere in Saratoga. Schauffele had a nice lag, but this was no time to lag. Schauffle’s reputation, a very good player who doesn’t have his best at the times when it matters the most, endures.

Is it easier for the guys who had nice finishes but know, deep down, they were never in it? Easier for players who didn’t have it this week, who missed the cut by miles? How about those who look at their game and Scheffler’s game and recognize they are all playing for second?

Or is it easier to be Clark, to know that when everyone else counted him out, he kept answering the bell? He striped his driving iron on the difficult 18th and had a wedge in hand from 173 yards out. He walked up the 18th, the player who this time last year was outside the top 100 in the world, with the opportunity to win his tour’s flagship event and certify his reputation as a big-game hunter against the best player in the world.

Is it easier to not have the trophy, to fall short in his grail quest, knowing that it’s not about ultimately attaining the trophy but that the secret lies in the quest itself?“I’ll take those positives. I played awesome in both weeks,” Clark said, nodding to his runner-up finish to Scheffler at Bay Hill last week. “I’ll also take that I can play in the moment, in my moment against the best players in the world on the best golf courses. I almost birdied the last three at one of the most iconic golf courses.”

The moral victories ended there. Clark is a major champion. He holds himself to higher standards. Earlier this year he said he thinks he can be the No. 1 player. He has all the respect for Scheffler; when asked what he thought when he saw Scheffler making a charge, Clark said his initial thought was, “Of course.” But Clark also thinks he can be what Scheffler is. He knows he can be.

“I’m really hoping that these two seconds are just leading to something greater,” Clark said. “I believe that, and I hope that maybe these shortcomings in these last couple weeks lead to something greater. I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead.”

Clark ended by saying, eventually, he’ll be able to see the positives. Eventually. No one would have blamed the guy if he departed the flash area and headed straight home, or perhaps sought solace in an adult beverage or two. Instead, Clark turned to a group of children seeking an autograph by player scoring. He stayed long and signed everything. He chatted, and put on a smile to cover up the hurt. The putt had not dropped. Wyndham Clark is not the Players champ. He sure as hell looked like one.

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com