FILLING A HOLE FOR DUCKS
BEND — It wasn't the best of rounds for Wyndham Clark, who has had a bundle of great ones this year. The University of Oregon's No. 1 player shot a 4-over-par 76 and finished out of the money in U.S. Open qualifying Tuesday at Pronghorn Resort.
"But it's all right," he said, after signing his scorecard. "This was my second or third round over par all year. I hit a lot of good shots, actually. I'd like to get it out now before the big stuff comes."
The "big stuff" includes the three-day Baton Rouge (Louisiana) regional, which begins Monday as the Ducks continue their bid to defend the NCAA Championship they won a year ago at Eugene Country Club.
Clark wasn't a member of last year's Oregon team. He is a graduate senior after a transfer from Oklahoma State.
And what an addition he has been, claiming the individual title as Oregon won the Pac-12 championship, the program's first outright conference crown since 1959.
Clark was the first Duck to win individual conference honors since Brent Murray ruled the Pac-10 in 1978.
Clark did it at Boulder, Colorado, 45 miles from his hometown of Highlands Ranch, a suburb of Denver.
"That was really a dream come true," Clark said. "The biggest win of my career, and it was awesome to do at home in front of friends and family."
The team championship, he said, "was actually more important than anything. Winning the individual (title) was just the cherry on top."
Clark went through ups and downs during his four years at Oklahoma State.
As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he was named Big 12 Player of the Year and a Golfweek first-team All-American. He finished only 42nd in medal play at the NCAA Championships, but won match play in the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals as the Cowboys reached the national championship match against Alabama.
But Clark played the season with a heavy heart. His mother, Lisa, had died from breast cancer in August 2013. He dedicated the following season to her memory.
"She was always the one I'd go to when I was struggling with golf," Clark told reporters during his 2014 season. "My love for the game and my dreams, I always shared with my mom. It became a part of her dream, too."
Clark struggled through two ineffective seasons in 2015 and '16, then decided he wanted to transfer for a senior season. Clark had been recruited out of high school by Oregon coach Casey Martin.
"We'd kept a friendly relationship during his time at Oklahoma State," Martin said. "After he decided he was going to leave, I got a call from him."
The timing was perfect. Martin's No. 1 player, NCAA 2016 individual champ Aaron Wise, had turned pro after his sophomore season.
"Aaron's departure left a big void," Martin said. "He was one of the best players in the nation. And suddenly, a replacement came — and another great player."
Why did Clark transfer to Oregon?
"Part of it was a little unhappiness with my previous school," he said. "Another part was wanting to play for a coach who could make me better. I thought Casey was the best for that. My main thing was wanting to play for Casey."
There was another element.
"If I go to a new place, they won't really known my story and what happened to my mom," Clark was quoted as saying after his decision to transfer.
"I definitely had some tough things that happened at Oklahoma State," he said. "Coming here, I had a fresh start. I felt like I could be myself. I didn't have a lot of the other stuff overshadowing me that I did at Oklahoma State. Here, no one really knows about that."
Clark has continued to use the memory of his mother as inspiration.
"I wish she could have been there at Boulder," he said. "But I know she's up there watching."
Clark credits Martin with improving his game this year. The UO coach turned him on to his swing coach in Las Vegas, Jeff Smith.
"That has helped a lot, with distance, for sure," Clark said. "Casey has also helped with preparation and learning. He has helped me on and off the course."
Clark has put together an almost impeccable resume this season, with three tournament victories, three runner-up finishes and only one placing outside the top 10.
"It's been an incredible year for Wyndham," Martin said. "He has put the team on his back and carried us, and everyone has fallen into line."
Clark has provided leadership, along with great results, for the Ducks.
"He's pretty much our new Aaron Wise," sophomore Edwin Yi said. "To describe him in one word, it would be humble. And he's such a hard worker. To pick him up this season has been huge."
The 5-11, 175-pound Clark has become one of the game's biggest hitters, with an average drive of more than 310 yards this season.
"He hits it incredibly far," Martin said. "It's a bomber's game for players at the highest level; he has that. He's as long as anyone I've been around in the college game.
"And his short game is world-class. You take his length combined with short game, that's the winning combination. He can get more accurate, and as he gains more control of his ball, he'll get better and better."
Martin said Clark's game compares favorably with Wise, who is among the top 25 money-winners on the Web.com Tour this season.
"Wyndham is significantly longer, and Aaron is long," Martin said. "If he were the PGA Tour, Wyndam would be top five in driving distance, up there with Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. Aaron is more accurate than Wyndham. Their short games are pretty dang similar. Wyndham might be a little better putter."
Clark's playing partner during his U.S. Open qualifier round was former Duck Daniel Miernicki, a Portland resident playing on the Web.com Tour. Miernicki fashioned a 3-under 69 to move on to sectional qualifying, but he was impressed with the caliber of Clark's game.
"He has a ton of potential," Miernicki said. "It's crazy to see the players come up after I was done at Oregon (in 2012). First Aaron — he's the real deal. And Wyndham has a chance to follow right behind him."
Clark leads the nation with a 69.57 scoring average and is ranked No. 1 in the country by Golfweek/Sagarin. He is one of three finalists for the Ben Hogan Award and is favored to win the Fred Haskins Award, both given to the top collegiate golfer.
"Wyndham deserves to be the number one player in the nation," Yi said. "We would all be very disappointed if he doesn't win."
Once the collegiate season ends, Clark will turn pro. He expects to play on the Canada-based Mackenzie Tour this summer, with hopes to graduate to the Web.com Tour, and eventually the PGA Tour circuit. Martin expects him to make it to the top.
"The guys excelling (on the PGA Tour), by and large, they pound it," Martin said. "He does that, and he's not just a long-drive guy. He has the short game to back it up.
"When you have that kind of length and you have a really good week, you tend to win. You're playing a different golf course than anybody else. Your have four or five good weeks a year, that what enables you to have a really good pro career."
Clark hopes to end his college career in grand style, helping the Ducks repeat their team title at the NCAA championships, May 26-31 at Sugar Grove, Illinois.
"We have to get there first, but I feel like our chances are as good as anyone's, if we go in with the right mind-set and have our games where we want them to be," Clark said. "If you get into match play, you never know. I love match play. The most fun you can have in golf is to play one person, mano y mano."