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Wyndham Clark’s late birdie robs Rory McIlroy of final pairing with Rickie Fowler

LOS ANGELES – Even in fading daylight, Wyndham Clark drilled an 8-iron that one-hopped off the flagstick and settled 6 feet away for a birdie that could prove important for a couple of reasons.

The closing birdie gave Clark a share of the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open, after Rickie Fowler’s three-putt on the final green.

Full-field scores from U.S. Open

And it denied Rory McIlroy a spot in the final group alongside one of his close friends.

“That was a big deal,” said Clark’s caddie, John Ellis. “That’s where we wanted to be, right? We want to be in that last group and stare down whoever’s leading.”

The birdie on the last green means the final group will run it back again on Sunday, a pair of Oklahoma State products who are vying for their first major title at Los Angeles Country Club.

Fowler may have even helped spark this recent run of stellar play from Clark. They were playing a casual round together at Medalist during the Florida swing this year when Clark began tooling around with Fowler’s putter. “I was like, Oh, gosh, this is really nice,” Clark said. So he texted his club manufacturer and had the same exact putter built for him, using Fowler’s specifications. Clark posted back-to-back top-10s this spring, and then won his first Tour event at Quail Hollow last month. He’s now among the top 35 players in the world.

“Rickie is a class act and a great Cowboy,” Clark said, “and I’m fortunate to have him as a friend.”

But McIlroy is even tighter with Fowler, and they could have been paired together in the final group just as they were in the 2014 Open Championship. McIlroy got the better of his pal that day in capturing his third career major title, and he also bested Fowler head-to-head at the 2021 CJ Cup.

“I would say Rory has got me beat in most of the areas for the most part,” Fowler said with a smile. “I feel like it’s been more him pushing me than me pushing him type of thing, with him having more wins and actually has majors versus me. But to me, I always enjoy having buddies that we can go toe-to-toe with, and we just continue to push each other. I think that’s how I’ve always gotten the best out of myself and also the people around me.”

“If it was a Tour event and you were away from the clubhouse,” Clark said, “you’d be looking around for them to blow the horn.”

McIlroy made two birdies in his first three holes Saturday but just one more the rest of the way, leaving him, at 9-under 201, a shot back of the lead. Instead of playing alongside Fowler in the final group, McIlroy will now draw Scottie Scheffler, the world No. 1 who thrust himself into contention with an eagle-birdie finish to cap off a Saturday 68. He’s three shots off the lead.

McIlroy has edged Scheffler each of the last two times they’ve played, head to head: The consolation match of the WGC-Match Play this year (2 and 1), as well as the 2022 Tour Championship, where McIlroy shot 66 to Scheffler’s 73 and claimed his third FedExCup title.

But for all of McIlroy’s myriad accomplishments, he hasn’t won a major in nearly nine years – since he outdueled Fowler that day at Royal Liverpool.

“It’s been such a long time since I’ve done it,” he said Saturday night. “I’m going out there to try to execute a game plan, and I feel like over the last three days I’ve executed that game plan really, really well, and I just need to do that for one more day.”

And on the final day, he’ll know exactly where he stands. All he needs to do is look back down the fairway at the last group.