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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At US Open, Matt Fitzpatrick’s first PGA Tour win comes at a major

Matt Fitzpatrick of England celebrating with the U.S. Open Championship trophy after winning on Sunday.

By Bill Pennington

This year’s U.S. Open began as the setting for an unprecedented showdown between golfers who had remained loyal to the established PGA Tour and a breakaway pack of ex-colleagues who recently joined the new, rebel Saudi-backed LIV Golf series. But the anticipated confrontation at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston, fizzled in the first round on Thursday when golfers from both camps got along without friction.

The LIV Golf-aligned players also faded from contention early.

By Sunday, the ongoing split in men’s professional golf was hardly settled, but it was overshadowed by a riveting final-round shootout among three of the sport’s best young players: Matt Fitzpatrick, 27, of England, and 25-year-old Americans Will Zalatoris and Scottie Scheffler.

In the end, Fitzpatrick, who won the U.S. Amateur at the Country Club nine years ago, survived the crucible, claiming his first win at a major golf championship and on the PGA Tour with a fourth-round 68 that made him 6 under par for the tournament. Fitzpatrick earned $3.15 million for the victory.

Zalatoris and Scheffler finished one stroke back.

The pivotal moment, as is common at major championships, arrived as Fitzpatrick stood on the final tee of the 72-hole, four-day tournament while leading by one stroke. Known for his meticulous precision — he has for many years charted the finite details and the outcome of every shot he hits in competition — Fitzpatrick had missed only two fairways to that point in his round.

But his 3-wood on the 444-yard, par-4 18th hole was ripped left and landed in the center of a yawning bunker just off the fairway. His ball was 156 yards from the hole, which was positioned on a plateaued green protected in the front by a cavernous bunker that has ruined many a golfer’s round for decades.

As Fitzpatrick later said, he had been struggling to hit competent shots out of fairway bunkers all year.

“It’s the one place I didn’t want to be — No. 1 on that list,” Fitzpatrick said.

But Fitzpatrick, who tied for fifth at last month’s PGA Championship and tied for 14th at this year’s Masters Tournament, has a wealth of elite golf experience. Moreover, he felt comfortable all week since he had only happy memories of competing at the Country Club because of his 2013 victory in the U.S. Amateur.

“I’m a fast player, and when I look back, it just all happened so fast,” he said of his second shot at the 18th. “It was like just kind of let natural ability take over.”

He pulled a 9-iron from his bag and imagined he was a junior player again.

“I thought: try to hit it close,” Fitzpatrick said, smiling.

The shot soared over the perilous high lip of the bunker he was in and above the crest of the vast bunker guarding the 18th green.

“It was amazing to watch,” said Fitzpatrick, who knew at that instant that he would almost certainly make a par, which he did with two cautious putts.

Zalatoris, Fitzpatrick’s playing partner, had a 14-foot birdie putt at No. 18 that would have set up a playoff. But the putt drifted less than an inch to the left of the hole.

The victory, which was Fitzpatrick’s first on American soil (he has won seven international events), could be a breakthrough for a quiet and popular player in the close-knit circuit of pro golfers. In the past year, Fitzpatrick, now No. 10 in the men’s world golf rankings, has worked tirelessly off the course to increase the speed of his swing, which leads to greater distance, and usually to lower scores. Quiet and unassuming, Fitzpatrick also has an easy smile that hides a fierce competitive streak.

Late Sunday night, Fitzpatrick admitted as much.

“Although it doesn’t come across, because I like to be quite reserved, I just love beating everyone,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. Just love winning. I want to beat everyone.”

While Saturday’s third round was played in gusting winds that made the greens firm and fast — and produced only seven rounds under par — Sunday’s conditions were benign in comparison.

As a result, the field could be more aggressive, especially if a tee shot landed on the fairway.

Zalatoris began the day tied for the lead with Fitzpatrick at 4 under par but faltered early when he three-putted from 67 feet below the second hole for a bogey. Then, on the next hole, he sent his second shot into a greenside bunker, which led to a second successive bogey.

But Zalatoris rarely appeared rattled. He steadied himself with three consecutive pars and at the par-3, 158-yard sixth hole, he drilled his tee shot 2 feet from the flag for an easy birdie. Zalatoris’ approach shot to the par-4 seventh green from 164 yards skipped onto the green and rolled just an inch left of the hole. His tap-in birdie brought him back to 4 under par for the tournament. When Zalatoris sank a 17-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole, he made the turn at 5-under par, just one stroke behind Fitzpatrick.

After a steady par on the 10th hole, Zalatoris played it smart and safe on the downhill par-3 11th hole, which was playing just 108 yards on Sunday (with a dastardly difficult back left hole location). Zalatoris left his tee shot below the hole and rolled in an 18-foot putt for birdie to move to 6 under, which gave him the tournament lead briefly. But a missed fairway off the 12th tee led to a layup short of the green and ultimately a bogey.

After watching Zalatoris fall back to 5 under, Fitzpatrick attacked. Standing over a 48-foot putt for birdie on the 13th hole, he rolled a snaking, left-to-right putt slowly but confidently into the hole to tie Zalatoris.

Like everyone at the top of the leaderboard Sunday, Fitzpatrick’s round had its inconsistencies. He started strong with three pars and two birdies in his opening five holes. But his tee shot on the par-3 sixth hole was excessively long, sailing 66 feet past the hole, which led to a bogey. Fitzpatrick rallied with a comfortable birdie on the par-5 eighth but like many on Sunday he could not sustain the positive momentum. He stumbled on the 10th hole when a lengthy second shot was short of the green and led to another bogey. Then the tiny 11th tormented Fitzpatrick as a 7-foot par putt skidded past the hole for a second successive bogey.

Scheffler appeared to take a commanding lead in the tournament Saturday with a sparkling front nine, but then gave it all back with a string of bogeys on the back nine. On Sunday, Scheffler carved up the front nine again, with four birdies in his first six holes.

But Scheffler’s putting stroke deserted him on the back nine when he bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes when he needed three putts to get his ball in the hole on both greens. That dropped him to 4 under for the tournament. Scheffler stayed in the battle though with five successive pars from the 12th through the 16th holes.

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