The American, boasting just one prior win on the PGA Tour and having never previously made the cut at the tournament, held off the challenge of Northern Ireland’s four-time major champion to win the 123rd edition of the major by a single stroke.
Clark, 29, carded a closing round even-par 70 to finish 10-under overall and earn a $3.6 million winner’s cut of a record $20 million prize purse, the largest ever awarded in major history.
And while the win fell on Father’s Day, Clark dedicated the win to his mother, Lise Clark, who died of breast cancer in 2013.
The Denver-born golfer had spoken at length about her inspiration earlier in the tournament, explaining how she had left him with the instruction to “play big.” Mission emphatically accomplished, Clark teared up while discussing her in his winner’s interview.
“I just felt like my mom was watching over me today and you know she can’t be here. Miss you mom,” said an emotional Clark.
“I’ve worked so hard and I’ve dreamed about this moment for so long. There’s been so many times I’ve visualized being here in front of you guys and winning this championship.
“I just feel like it was my time.”
For McIlroy, US Open champion in 2011, a nine year wait for a fifth major title continues. The 34-year-old has now finished inside the top-five at 10 major tournaments since winning The Open and PGA Championship in 2014.
“When I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet,” McIlroy told reporters.
“I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”
An even longer wait endures for Rickie Fowler, who – having begun the final round tied for the lead with Clark – saw his dreams of an elusive first major evaporate in a painful final day slide.
The 34-year-old had made a historic start, shooting 62 to join American compatriot Xander Schauffele in breaking the record for the lowest single round score ever shot at a US Open, but closed with a 75, the fourth highest score of the final round, to fall to tied-fifth.
Three times a runner-up, eight times in the top-10: the bittersweet tag of being one of the best golfers to never win a major remains stuck to the fan-favorite Californian.
World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler finished third, three shots behind Clark at seven-under and one ahead of Australian Cameron Smith in fourth.
Level in fifth with Fowler were Australian Min Woo Lee and England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who was mere inches away from leveling Fowler and Schauffele’s historic record following a blistering final round.
Fleetwood shot two eagles and four birdies to soar 32 places up the leaderboard, but saw his closing seven-foot birdie effort roll agonizingly wide to end on a 63.
Defending champion Matt Fitzpatrick finished tied-17th at one-under overall, as did last month’s PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka.
The fourth and final men’s major of the year, The Open Championship, gets underway at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on July 20.
After an agonizing bogey finish to his third round, any hopes Fowler had of wiping the slate clean were quickly dashed. The world No. 45 made a nightmare start as his first ever share of a 54-hole major lead evaporated, a string of errant tee shots compounding two bogeys across his first six holes.
Again, Clark capitalized, rattling three quick birdies across the same stretch. Having trailed Fowler by two strokes after 53 holes, by the end of the 60th he led his playing partner by three.
Unfortunately for Clark however, up ahead McIlroy was showing the sort of final round composure befitting of his glittering résumé. The Northern Irishman was hardly setting the North Course alight, birdieing just once by the turn and squandering an easy birdie opportunity at the eighth, but just one bogey in his previous 23 holes was keeping him within striking distance.
As Fowler continued to tumble, a two-horse race was taking shape, and there could be no doubts as to who held the pedigree. Heading into the week, McIlroy had twice as many major titles as Clark had made major cuts – yet the world No. 32 looked unflappable amid uncharted waters.
Then, disaster struck. Finding himself in a grisly-looking position among the fescue at the side of the eighth green, Clark swung and looked up to track a sailing ball that never materialized. To the American’s visible horror, his ball remained buried in the long grass.
It was the sort of nightmarish moment that has ended the major dreams of players far more decorated than Clark, reminiscent of the failed bunker escape that shot down Viktor Hovland’s dreams at the PGA Championship last month, but Clark responded admirably. A brilliantly executed effort at the next attempt left him with a simple putt for a bogey six.
As Clark made the turn, he led McIlroy by a single stroke.
The prospect of a one-on-one shootout was soon all but confirmed, as Fowler made back-to-back bogeys to sink two below eight-under overall, the score he had held after just 18 holes of the tournament.
Drama ensued at McIlroy’s 14th hole when his approach, caught by the wind, sunk into the face of a bunker. The Northern Irishman dropped to his knees in anguish, but received a boost when rules officials deemed his ball broke the surface, granting him a drop in the rough ahead of the bunker.
It was short-lived relief however, as his subsequent nine-foot putt for par rolled wide. At long last, McIlroy bogeyed, and Clark punished him, promptly birdieing the same hole to take a three shot cushion into his final five holes.
But the first sign of nerves quickly followed for Clark. As McIlroy, going aggressive, applied immediate pressure with a birdie at the 16th, the American made back-to-back bogeys. Suddenly, the lead was back to just one.
Clark steadied the ship with a par to take a one shot advantage with him on his walk to the par-four 18th tee. Up ahead, McIlroy’s long-range birdie effort rolled narrowly wide, putting the American a par away from the US Open title.
Onto the green in two, hundreds of fans poured onto the fairway to follow Clark on what surely felt like the longest walk of his life. Knocking his approach to within a foot, Clark allowed himself a fist pump before striding over and converting for the championship.
After a long embrace with caddie John Ellis, an overcome Clark held his cap to his face before looking skywards.
Played big indeed.