By Peter May
As his putt approached the hole on the 18th green Sunday evening, Will Zalatoris thought he was headed to a thrilling playoff that would determine the U.S. Open champion. All the ball had to do was drop and Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick would settle things in a two-hole playoff.
“With about 6 feet to go, I thought I had it,” Zalatoris said. He had checked his phone earlier and seen what Paul Azinger, the NBC golf analyst and former PGA Tour pro, had been saying. “That everyone missed that putt high,” Zalatoris added.
He continued, “‘I was the closest one all day. I was, like, ‘thanks for the consolation prize.’”
Zalatoris is becoming painfully familiar with consolation prizes. Last month, he lost the PGA Championship to Justin Thomas in a playoff at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He finished second to Hideki Matsuyama in the 2021 Masters, just seven months removed from the Korn Ferry Tour. And now, another second place finish in another major.
“It stings obviously to have three runners-up so far in my career in majors,” he said. “We’re obviously doing the right things. I’d pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half, and I’d probably be a three-time major champion at this point. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Zalatoris can look to the great Ben Hogan for historical comparison. Hogan was repeatedly labeled a bridesmaid for his inability to win a major throughout the early and mid 1940s. He lost a playoff to Byron Nelson at the 1942 Masters after leading by three shots. He lost a chance at a playoff in the 1946 Masters when he three-putted from 12 feet, missing a 30-inch putt.
“It just wasn’t my time to win,” Hogan told The New York Times. “However, there’s another year coming.” Two months later, at the U.S. Open outside Cleveland, he again three-putted on the 72nd hole, missing another short putt and falling out of a playoff won by Lloyd Mangrum. But later that year, he won the PGA Championship, the first of his nine majors.
The difference is that unlike Hogan, who had established himself as one of the game’s premier players by consistently winning other tournaments, Zalatoris is still looking for his first victory on the PGA Tour. The consensus is that Zalatoris’ putting — particularly the short putt — is his Achilles heel. Though he putted relatively well at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts — until he missed that birdie on the last hole in the final round — he entered the tournament ranked 160th on the tour in putting.
Asked what he thought when he saw Zalatoris line up a putt, Collin Morikawa said, “I pray for him. I mean, look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’ve said it since college, anything outside of that 8- to 10-foot zone, I mean, it’s as smooth as anyone else’s stroke.”
And inside of 10 feet?
“We’ve seen some squirrelly putts,” Morikawa said. “Not that I’m the best putter and I have had that little squirreliness, too, but I think we all kind of get on our toes when we see it.”
Zalatoris had no trouble winning before he arrived on the PGA Tour. He won the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur championship. At Wake Forest, he was an All-American and ACC Player of the Year. He twice won the Trans-Mississippi Amateur championship. He was on the victorious 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team, which also featured Scottie Scheffler, who tied with Zalatoris for second place Sunday, and Morikawa, who finished tied for fifth.
In addition to the three career second-place finishes at the majors, Zalatoris this year has finished second to Luke List in a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open. He tied for sixth at the Masters, fourth at the Zurich Classic and fifth at the Memorial Tournament.
His world ranking has climbed to 12th and he is ranked eighth in the FedEx Cup standings. No golfer ranked that high or higher has done so without at least one victory.
Sunday’s result at the Country Club was Zalatoris’ seventh top-10 finish in 12 events this year. He has finished in the top 10 in six of the eight majors in which he has played. It is an impressive record — minus a glaring hole, or three.
“It’s just little things,” said Zalatoris, who turns 26 in August. “It’s not the same thing at every single one. We’re talking inches. It’s not like I finished runner-up by four or five a few times. It’s been one for all three. So I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve got to keep knocking on the door because eventually — like I said earlier, the comfort level is there.”
After Zalatoris had dissected his round and his ongoing battle to finally crack the winner’s circle, he received a parting gift from the United States Golf Association: a silver medal for coming in second.