BROOKLINE, MASSACHUSETTS | Will Zalatoris stood with his shoulders back and arms crossed and explained again what it felt like to have come one swing away from winning a major championship, this time in the U.S. Open at The Country Club where Matt Fitzpatrick evidently has struck a deal with the ghost of Francis Ouimet.
As Zalatoris took questions, the sound of the trophy presentation floated through the trees, background noise that he couldn’t escape.
It was happening barely 100 yards away and near the spot where Zalatoris had gone to his knees when his 15-foot putt to force a playoff slid past the cup like a ghost in the night.
Three times in a career that still has the morning dew on it, the 25-year-old Zalatoris has been one shot short in a major championship. The first time came in the 2021 Masters, more recently losing a playoff to Justin Thomas in the PGA Championship last month and this time being left to marvel at the fairway bunker shot Fitzpatrick fired into the gray sky on the final hole, a swing that will live on like Tiger Woods’ putt at Torrey Pines and Jack Nicklaus’ 1-iron at Pebble Beach all those years ago.
“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,” Zalatoris said, the smile on his face unable to hide the hurt in his eyes.
It’s not much of an exaggeration, if any at all, to say that Zalatoris is that close to having hall-of-fame credentials while still chasing his first PGA Tour victory. The self-described “major championship specialist” is just that, even if someone else keeps getting in his way.
“It was fun, man,” Zalatoris said of the crucible crush of pressure that the rare ones like him chase.
The losing will burn like alcohol on an open cut for a while, but it will fade. Zalatoris knows he’s on to something even if the fates – and a disobedient driver – are testing him.
“This one stings, but I know we’re going to get this,” he said.
A Masters. A PGA Championship. A U.S. Open.
If his run in the Masters two Aprils ago was like a fresh surprise and his near miss at the PGA Championship was a pleasant surprise, this was more of a gut punch.
Rather than think about what could have been, Zalatoris seems built to believe in what can be.
“It's one of those deals where you keep knocking on the door and keep putting yourself in position, and he'll come through. I'm sure he'll win one of these when it's all said and done,” said Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who shared second with Zalatoris.
It was a brilliant U.S. Open once it shook free of its pre-championship focus on the LIV Golf insurgency, which has made the professional game feel as unstable as the San Andreas fault.
What happened at The Country Club after a 34-year absence was the rarest of U.S. Opens, one free of the usual squawking about the USGA’s razor-wire approach to course setup. The players’ praises were effectively sung in harmony, music to USGA ears and the final holes, played out under leaden skies, had a glow about them.
Fitzpatrick, who goes about his business with the buttoned-up manner of an accountant at his desk, arrived in this leafy corner of Boston with a history here, and he delivered more.
Zalatoris watched it happen – to him.
Almost three hours before Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick arrived at the finishing hole, they were separated by four strokes, Zalatoris retreating with two early bogeys and Fitzpatrick going the other way. Then, over a six-hole stretch midway through the round, Zalatoris made four birdies and was two ahead of the field.
Then he was trailing again after a two-stroke swing on the par-4 15th.
The margin was down to one when Zalatoris walked over to see Fitzpatrick’s tee shot in the fairway bunker in the bend of the 18th fairway. It was in the sand near a wall of thick fescue, a spot where bogeys are hatched – or doubles in the case of Jon Rahm on Saturday.
A par, Zalatoris figured, could get him in a playoff. If only …
“When he pulled it off, tip your cap, well done,” Zalatoris said. “When they show the highlights of future U.S. Opens, that's one that's going to be shown, because that was just incredible.”
When Fitzpatrick missed a birdie putt that would have sealed the victory, Zalatoris had one more chance. Two inches short of 15 feet, down a slope with a slight left-to-right slide near the hole. Similar line to the one Fitzpatrick just showed him.
On television, analyst Paul Azinger said almost every player had missed that putt on the high side.
Zalatoris was the last one to miss – on the high side.
“With about 6 feet to go, I thought I had it. I was the closest one all day. I was, like, thanks for the consolation prize,” Zalatoris said.
As Zalatoris fielded questions, the ceremony on the 18th green ended, and while Fitzpatrick was posing for photographs with his second silver trophy from The Country Club (he won the 2013 U.S. Amateur here), the co-runner up already was being asked how this one might be different from the others.
It was too soon. His nerves were still humming. The disappointment was still fresh.
Studying his putt to force a playoff, Zalatoris said he wasn’t nervous. He knew the drill because he’d been there before. That’s evidence of his evolution as a player.
The ache, sudden and lasting, doesn’t get easier. Zalatoris didn’t three-putt all week and he didn’t make a double bogey, goals on every U.S. Open to-do list.
He shot 69-70-67-69 on a rugged, wind-scraped layout that touched all the requirements of a U.S. Open, and it still wasn’t enough.
When Zalatoris finished taking questions, John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s chief of championships, presented him with a silver medal hanging on a red, white and blue ribbon. Zalatoris bowed his head and accepted the medal and said his thanks.
A moment later, with the evening quiet beginning to settle over The Country Club, Zalatoris walked off the small interview podium and behind the tent that sheltered it.
He opened the empty box that Bodenhamer had given him and put the silver medal back inside. Something to take with him but not something he wanted to wear at the moment.
Top: Will Zalatoris now owns runner-up finishes in the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. Open.