BROOKLINE, Mass. – There’s a destination in defeat, but the journey isn’t for everyone.
Many, most even, don’t have the temperament for defeat. The sting left by unfulfilled expectations can be debilitating and create a wound that doesn’t mend. The onus of loss can be particularly paralyzing for golfers who are already handcuffed by the all-or-nothing aspect of tournament play. One hundred and fifty-six players arrived at storied Brookline this week with visions of glory and only Matt Fitzpatrick spent an unseasonably cool Sunday in June celebrating.
In the Englishman’s wake were the likes of Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama, Rory McIlroy and Will Zalatoris. What separates the U.S. Open bridesmaids is that Scheffler, Morikawa, Matsuyama and McIlroy have all summited the Grand Slam peak at some point in their careers. Zalatoris, a rail-thin ringer for Owen Wilson who crashed the PGA Tour party during the lonely pandemic days and has become a perennial contender, was playing for his first big-league triumph, be it major or otherwise.
There’s solace for Zalatoris that he’s done everything but hoist a trophy.
In a Grand Slam career that now covers nine majors, he’s finished runner-up three times – a list that begins with his Cinderella run at last year’s Masters and includes last month’s playoff loss to Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship. He also has more top-5 finishes (five) than “others.”
For most 25-year-olds it would be a resume worth celebrating, but late Sunday on the south end of Boston, Zalatoris wasn’t interested in a celebration. He’d grinded all day through cold and wind and a swing that, by his own admission, wasn’t as repeatable as it normally is.
“I'm not happy with finishing second,” he said following a closing 69 on a day when the field scoring average was 72.09.
He wasn’t happy with his runner-up showing to Fitzpatrick, but as he unpacked an eventful day at The Country Club it appeared as if he wasn’t angry, either. There was his 17-footer for birdie on No. 9 to move to within a stroke of the lead, which bounced between Fitzpatrick and Scheffler for much of the afternoon. He added an 18-footer for birdie at No. 11 to tie at the top. And after bogeys on Nos. 12 and 15, he cashed in a 6-footer for birdie at the 16th hole to keep his title hopes alive.
But it wasn’t enough. There was a glimmer of hope until the very end - a 14-foot birdie look at the 72nd hole to force overtime, but the attempt drifted left at the last moment.
“This one hurts in particular pretty hard, but it's motivating,” he admitted. “I've got to keep doing what I'm doing. I know I'm going to get one sooner or later.”
Every loss comes with its own character builder. For Willy Z, last year’s near-miss at Augusta National was his first time in contention at a major. There was an appreciation for what he’d done well, not a crushing desire to lament what had gone wrong.
Last month’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills had a bit of an edge. Zalatoris led through two rounds before a Saturday 73 sent him scrambling for something special.
“It stings and hurts," Josh Gregory, Zalatoris’ performance coach, said this Sunday. "He just told me in the locker room he had one regret at Southern Hills, three-putting the final green trying to force something. Not this week; he didn’t have any regrets today.”
But that’s the journey. Golf is littered with players who were never able to turn close into a coronation and, fairly or not, many of the snake-bitten were relegated to careers that felt underachieved. The difference, at least anecdotally, with Zalatoris, is how he processes defeat.
At Southern Hills there was a sense of urgency that ultimately cost him, while the '21 Masters was likely the combination of unforeseen consequences and an understandable lack of confidence. A Masters rookie hasn’t won at Augusta National in more than four decades and it’s probably tough to convince yourself that you’re the exception.
It was far too early to thoroughly process the lessons of Brookline, but the progress is unmistakable.
“At Southern Hills he seemed a little more down after that one. He texted me that night and said, 'I finally feel like I’m one of the best players in the world,'” Gregory said. “I felt more of a sense of accomplishment this week without his best tee to green.”
In simplest terms, Zalatoris’ week was a study in contrasts. His normally machine-like ball-striking let him down when he needed it the most, and he finished the championship near the bottom of the field in strokes gained: off the tee (55th). His putting, by contrast, was solid and his performance should at least begin to dispel the notion that his short game is holding him back. For the second consecutive major he picked up strokes on the greens, finishing 13th in strokes gained: putting.
“I battled all week,” he said. “I was pretty sporadic off the tee here and there. I had spurts of really good and spurts of really bad. I think this one probably is going to take a little bit more processing than that one [the PGA Championship].”
Zalatoris played the role well enough. There’s a code to these things and he was quick to applaud Fitzpatrick’s performance, even going so far as to call the Englishman’s approach shot on the final hole from a fairway bunker a major must-see moment.
Zalatoris was also mindful enough not to let his emotions and the enormity of the moment get the best of him. The game-tying attempt at the final hole was perfect until it wasn’t, but he shrugged it off. Rub of the green.
The learning curve has been impressive in just nine major starts, but there’s also something to be said for Zalatoris’ DNA.
“He's strong mentally. That's why he performs so well. It just so happens the last two majors he's been up against great champions in Fitzy and Justin Thomas [at the PGA Championship],” said Scheffler, who tied for second with Zalatoris. “I was watching the putt on 18. When it was 2 feet out, I was like, oh, yeah, that one's in, and for some reason it went off to the left. It's one of those deals. You've got to get the breaks. He'll bounce back from this.”
Maybe it was too much to ask Zalatoris to take down the Barron of Brookline. Fitzpatrick is now 2-for-2 at The Country Club, having won the 2013 U.S. Amateur, and he appeared destined to complete the historic double. But there’s a destiny for Zalatoris as well. The Tour cliché seemed apropos late Sunday – you learn more in defeat than you do in victory.
“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,” he said. “We'll just keep doing what we're doing.”
There was an edge to Zalatoris’ voice. He’d earned it. Defeat is difficult and the process isn’t for everyone, but even after another runner-up showing, another opportunity lost, the destination was still clear.