The ball bounced five times, maybe six. Five opportunities for physics, geometry and gravity to take over. Five chances for fate to drag down Will Zalatoris one more time.
On the 75th hole of the St. Jude Championship, in the midst of a chaotic playoff against Sepp Straka, on an approach shot that came perilously close to landing in the water fronting the green, the ball ticked off the rocky facing of the green and , again and again, bounced Zalatoris’ way. At last.
The ball nestled up against the collar of the green, and Straka — unable to see what kind of shot at the green Zalatoris had — put his own approach into the water. Zalatoris ended up taking a drop and getting up and down for the victory.
Zalatoris won the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs, capturing the first PGA Tour victory of his young career. Those are the facts. This is the truth: Zalatoris’ win wasn’t a major, but the sense of relief — the sense of at last, at freaking last — was far more than your “usual” first-ever win on Tour.
“I’ve always had the attitude of, the job’s not done,” Zalatoris said after the win. “As great as it is to pull this off, I still feel like I’ve got some unfinished business going forward.”
Zalatoris has made something of a habit of close-but-no-trophy over the last few years. Across the last nine majors, Zalatoris has withdrawn once, missed one cut … and played his way into the top 8 six times, including three runner-up finishes.
His near-misses took on a cinematic quality. He charged at the top of the leaderboard at the 2021 Masters but couldn’t quite catch Hideki Matsuyama, finishing one stroke back. He lost the 2022 PGA Championship to Justin Thomas in a playoff. Four weeks later, he lost the US Open to Matt Fitzpatrick when his putt to force a playoff skirted a fingernail wide of the cup.
“Anytime you put yourself in contention,” he said Sunday night, “you’re going to learn something about yourself. The first second at the Masters was life-changing because it put me in position to play out here as much as I wanted to and put me kind of on the map. The second at the PGA was kind of affirmation that it wasn’t a fluke of a week, and the third one at the US Open gave me that much more belief that I can win a major, I can win out here. It was just a matter of time and obviously this was my week.”
Golf fans and media use a lot of metaphors to soften the blow of near-misses, blaming the Golf Gods for their cruelty or declaring that a player who just misses a major is “going to win a lot of these eventually.”
For Zalatoris, there’s still plenty of time, in golf terms. He turns 26 on Tuesday, older than the age when Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy won their first majors, but still ahead of — or, at least, on — the pace of some other well-known champions. Brooks Koepka captured the first of his four majors at 28; Dustin Johnson didn’t get his first until age 31. Taking this to the far extreme, Zalatoris could play in nearly 50 majors until he’s 37, the age when Sergio Garcia won his first.
The truth, though, is that there are no guarantees, no Golf Gods playing dice with the fates of players. Sometimes the ball goes in the cup, and sometimes it glances down and just rolls on. Sometimes careers proceed like the slow burn of Phil Mickelson, who had 17 — 17! — top-10 finishes before he won his first major. And sometimes they lose momentum like Rickie Fowler, who placed in the top 5 of all four majors in 2014 … but still hasn’t won one, and didn’t even qualify to play in three of them in 2022.
Still, Zalatoris is a testament to the grind, to the fine art of shutting out the haters. When his 10-foot putt dropped to force the playoff, Zalatoris bellowed, “What they gonna say now!”
He was willfully channeling the Warriors’ Steph Curry, who said the same thing after Golden State won its fourth championship of its current run and Curry won his first-ever Finals MVP.
“I’m a big Warriors fan and obviously Steph, he’s a Cal club guy, he’s a pretty big inspiration,” Zalatoris said Sunday. “I follow the Warriors like crazy and when he said that, it kind of related to kind of my journey so far. So being that close and then kind of being written off here and there and then obviously finally pulling it off, it was — I actually can’t believe I said that. At least it wasn’t something worse.”
Zalatoris now rolls into the second round of the playoffs at the top of the standings, putting himself in fine position to claim the season-long championship next week in Atlanta. Eight months from now and 150 miles to the east, he’ll have another opportunity to claim that first major.
He’s learned all he needs to know about losing. It’s time for some more victory.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.