BROOKLINE, Mass. — There are more losers this weekend than anyone else in golf. That’s what the US Open “forgets” to tell you. One hundred fifty-six players entered The Country Club on Thursday and 155 left as losers. And that’s not counting the countless thousands who didn’t even make it to Brookline, losing in qualifiers around the world.
So why, on Sunday night in Boston, does it seem like Will Zalatoris is the only one?
The end is a good place to start. Zalatoris stood on 72nd Street in Brookline with, at worst, odds of winning his first major championship. To his left, Matthew Fitzpatrick had just disappeared into the face of a fairway bunker, looking at what could charitably be described as a horrible approach shot to the 18th green. simultaneously the distance to the flagpole and, more pressing, the edge of the bunker. Zalatoris was behind Fitzpatrick by one, but one look at the lie was all he needed to know his match was a match. length path of more.
“I walked past him,” Zalatoris said afterward. “And I thought going for it was going to be… bold.”
The crowd around both players swarmed down the center of the fairway, while thousands waited in the stands and on the green above. The noise was deafening, and later, when Fitzpatrick watched his approach shot, so was the silence.
Finally, Fitzpatrick took a swing, an awkward cut that sent his ball toward the edge of the green. Miraculously, he managed to clear the edge of the bunker as he carried the ball the proper distance. His ball landed hard on the 18th green, just 15 feet from the flagstick.
It was the shot of the tournament, but Zalatoris didn’t flinch. Quickly, he brought himself within a few feet of Fitzpatrick’s.
“At that point, you have to assume he’s going to make that shot,” Zalatoris said. “When he made it, tip your cap, well done. Now I have to birdie and I hope he misses.
On the green, the two golfers moved like bullfighters, making slow, deliberate circles around the hole. First it was Fitzpatrick’s turn. Realizing his advantage, he hit a safe putt that stopped just outside the flagstick. Quickly, he ran down the hill and punched for par. Now Zalatoris’ chances were slimmer. He putts and extends, or misses and loses.
Finally, Zalatoris walked over to his putt. He made a smooth, confident stroke, and his ball reacted the same way, sliding carefully down the slope toward the hole. Then, about five feet away, Zalatoris’ ball stopped snapping. In slow motion, he watched as he walked slowly past the flagpole at the top of the hole.
The crowd shrieked in agony. Zalatoris withered.
He had just lost the US Open.
“With about six feet to go, I thought I had it. I was checking my phone earlier, and a bunch of people were saying that [analyst Paul Azinger] He had said that everyone missed that high putt. I was the closest all day,” Zalatoris said. “I was like, thanks for the consolation prize.”
There is another consolation prize for Zalatoris: the Silver Medal, which is presented each year to the US Open runner-up at the final press conference of the tournament. The medal remained around his neck until he stepped down from the podium, but when he reappeared a few seconds later, he was gone.
It’s hard to blame him. Time is the only treatment for what ails Zalatoris on Sunday night. Right now, there is only one loss, a loss that somehow feels worse than the remaining 154 losers, all but one of whom lost by larger margins. A loss that also feels worse than all the great losses of previous championships.
Just a month ago, it was Zalatoris who fell to Justin Thomas in a dramatic playoff at the PGA Championship. A year ago, it was Zalatoris who lost alone to Hideki Matsuyama at the Masters. That makes six top-10 finishes in nine major championship starts, including three runners-up, and still no wins.
“I’d pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half, and I’d probably be a three-time Grand Slam champion by now,” Zalatoris said. “It’s just little things. It is not the same in each and every one. We are talking about inches. It’s not like he finished second four or five times. He has been one for all three.”
This is the universal agony of golf: there is only one winner. At the US Open, a tournament Zalatoris has dreamed of since he first walked past Ken Venturi’s trophy as a kid at Cal Club, he was the underdog.
But it is also the universal truth of golf: failure is not fatal. In fact, it is overwhelmingly normal.
“I am not happy with finishing second. It’s not like she’s trying to persuade that down there. Obviously I’m trying to make it,” Zalatoris said. “The comfort level is there, especially now that I know I can do this. I just have to keep waiting my turn.”
And wait your turn, it will. Zalatoris has just three weeks until the next big championship: the Open at St. Andrews. The same pieces of his game that made him a contender at Brookline will make him a threat on the Old Course. Of course, it will take time for him to recover from Sunday at Brookline, but three weeks? That’s a lifetime far.
“Any golfer who wants to win a tournament can say they’re a little sick in the head because they’re just adrenaline junkies,” Zalatoris said. “This one hurts a lot in particular, but it’s motivating. I have to keep doing what I’m doing. I know I’m going to get one sooner or later.”
On Sunday, Zalatoris lost the US Open. There is no prize that softens that truth, there is no medal that can change that reality. But it’s okay, you won’t have much time to think about it anyway. There’s another tournament next week.