At U.S. Open, Matt Fitzpatrick stays focused, beats Will Zalatoris

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BROOKLINE, Mass. — It is programmed into the minds of course rats such as Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris that golf isn’t played against the competitor in your group. It is played against the course — and only the course. Grow distracted by what the player next to you does — the club he pulls, the line he takes, the score he posts — and doom awaits. The ground below and ahead is the foe. The fellow alongside is quiet company.

Why, then, as they walked toward the 18th green at the Country Club in the dying light on an unusually cool New England Sunday evening, were Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris — 52 years and zero major championships between them — chatting casually? This was neither Northwestern vs. Wake Forest, a match between their colleges, nor was it a quick nine between 20-somethings before the sun faded and the suds flowed. This was the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open.

“There’s just a lot of stuff going on,” Fitzpatrick said.

How to sort it out? It’s a measure of how glorious the golf produced on an overcast, blustery day that what was behind this final pairing had to be discussed in the moment, with so much of import ahead. Their balls were safely on the green — in manners that must be considered. The U.S. Open hung in the balance. The green was surrounded by throngs who appreciated what they were seeing. Over 71½ holes, only Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris could understand what it felt like to pull it off.

“I just don’t think people realize how hard it is to win a major,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s only four of them a year. Yeah, it just takes a little bit extra.”

Fitzpatrick, a 27-year-old Englishman, is the champion of the 122nd U.S. Open because he made one more brilliant shot than did Zalatoris en route to a closing 68 that left him at 6-under-par 274 for the championship. There is part of Zalatoris that certainly leaves here thinking the 14-foot birdie putt he had at the last — the putt that slid gingerly by and had him crouched at the knees, toppling his putter over the top of his head — is the shot that defines the tournament. It could have forced a playoff. It didn’t, and Fitzpatrick won by a single shot.

Matt Fitzpatrick digs out of the sand to win U.S. Open for first major title

That it leaves Zalatoris with a runner-up at the PGA Championship in a playoff loss to Justin Thomas last month and a runner-up at the 2021 Masters to Hideki Matsuyama — and six cuts made at major championships in which his worst finish is a tie for eighth — only leads you to believe he will be striding up the 72nd hole at another major in the near future with much to discuss with whoever happens to be his playing partner.

“I’d pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half,” Zalatoris said, “and I’d probably be a three-time major champion at this point.”

The leader board alongside the 18th and the ledger that will exist in perpetuity will show that Scottie Scheffler — hugely able, immensely accomplished, the No. 1 golfer in the world and the reigning Masters champ — tied Zalatoris, a shot back of Fitzpatrick. That is undeniably true. The other names near the top — Matsuyama at 3 under, two-time major champ Collin Morikawa and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy at 2 under — made it seem as though Fitzpatrick slew giants.

Really, he slew the guy next to him — Zalatoris, the 25-year-old who was born in California, grew up in Texas and is thin enough to resemble a putter.

“You can’t play match play against someone all day,” Zalatoris said, “because someone else may do something.”

Yet so much of the something happened in that final pairing. Take the tiny par-3 11th, where they arrived tied at 5 under. Zalatoris ran in a birdie putt from 18 feet. Fitzpatrick tried to match the momentum — and blew his 17-footer by and then missed the comebacker. Oops. That’s one birdie, one bogey — and a two-shot swing.

Where else did you need to look?

“You’ve got plenty of time still,” Fitzpatrick said. “But you’d rather be two clear than two behind.”

Play the course? They were playing each other. On the 15th tee, where they arrived tied, they had to wait for some 10 minutes for the group in front of them. How to handle thumb-twiddling time with four holes remaining in the U.S. Open?

“Matt and I were just making jokes,” Zalatoris said. Why not? When Keegan Bradley and Jon Rahm finally cleared up ahead, Fitzpatrick’s veteran caddie, Billy Foster, chimed in: “Play well today, boys.”

“Like we were on the first tee,” Zalatoris said. “It was fun.”

‘This one stings,’ but Will Zalatoris keeps the faith after latest close call

What a word: fun. More than almost any sport, major championship golf can strip a competitor of any shields, exposing him or her for all to see. Growing up, chasing the light — that’s fun. This? There’s an even-money chance majors will be lost rather than won.

So here was Fitzpatrick, after that eternity on the 15th tee, spraying his drive deep into the gallery on the right. Here’s the moment to lose the major, right?

“I get there,” he said, “and the ball’s sitting perfectly.”

Another building block for a first major championship: an unexpected break. Fitzpatrick pulled his 5-iron and slung the ball 220 yards to the green. The ensuing 18-foot birdie putt — and Zalatoris’s smothered lie in the rough, which led to a bogey — brought the next two-shot swing.

When they arrived at the 18th tee, Scheffler was done. They were all that remained. Zalatoris blistered a driver, cut beautifully down the left side. Fitzpatrick had all the evidence right in front of him of what he needed to do — and he hooked a 3-wood into a bunker. Death?

As he surveyed what awaited him — an uphill approach of some 159 yards to the flag — Fitzpatrick also considered the man, not the course, he was playing against. Fitzpatrick knew Zalatoris is among the PGA Tour’s best iron players.

“That’s the good thing about knowing your stats,” Fitzpatrick said. “You know who you’re playing against.”

Punch out? Given his situation, maybe. Given his opponent, no. Fitzpatrick’s only choice: Pull a 9-iron and go for the green.

“When I look back at it,” Fitzpatrick said, “it all happened so fast.”

Don’t worry, Matt. You will have the chance to see it again. And again. And again.

“Matt’s shot on 18 is going to be shown, probably, for the rest of U.S. Open history,” Zalatoris said.

It will be because it landed safely above the hole. It will be because it was exactly what was necessary to beat the man next to him. It will be because it won the U.S. Open.

“I just love winning,” Fitzpatrick said. “I absolutely love winning. I don’t care who it is, but I just want to beat everyone.”

This week, Fitzpatrick beat the other 155 in the field. On Sunday, he beat the man he was paired with. Head down, blinders on. That’s enough to beat the course. That’s enough to be the U.S. Open champion.

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