Will Zalatoris picks off his first (of many), Cameron Smith has a trying week, the playoff race tightens, the court sides with the Tour and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
The power. The precision. The touch on and around the greens. The high golf IQ, refined over years of competing at the highest level. There was no more capable player on the PGA Tour without a victory than Will Zalatoris.
With three runners-up this season, it always seemed like just a matter of time before he hoisted a trophy … but at some point, Zalatoris needed to deliver. His eight top-10s were the most of any player without a title.
Fitting, then, that his breakthrough came in the first event of the FedExCup Playoffs, against a field with the best Tour players all season long. Throwing darts and staying poised under pressure, Zalatoris relied on (yes) his clutch putting to outlast Sepp Straka in a bizarre playoff at TPC Southwind.
“It’s kind of hard to say, ‘about time’ when it’s your second year on Tour,” said the 25-year-old Zalatoris, “but about time. Considering all the close finishes that I’ve had this year, to finally pull it off, it means a lot.”
Zalatoris arrived at the 2021 Masters, when he finished second to eventual champion Hideki Matsuyama. He validated his lofty ranking by pushing Justin Thomas to the limit at this year’s PGA. And a month later at the U.S. Open, he furthered his belief by coming agonizingly close to another playoff with Matt Fitzpatrick.
Rather than dwell on all those near-misses, Zalatoris looked at it differently: He was a few inches from being a two-time major champion. He hadn't even been a full-time Tour player for two seasons. His time was coming.
At the FedEx St. Jude Championship, Zalatoris was typically excellent with his irons, leading the field in strokes gained: approach. But he won this title with his putter:
- A 10-footer on the final hole of regulation;
- A 14-footer on the second playoff hole to stay alive;
- A 7-footer for bogey on the third extra hole for the win.
After the first make, he pumped his fist and screamed, “What are they going to say now?!”
It was a nod to one of his sports heroes, Steph Curry, who, soaked in champagne after another NBA title, delighted in silencing the doubters who claimed the Warriors’ dynasty was ending. Zalatoris has had his share of detractors, too, who look at his wobbly putting stroke from short range and opine that it’ll never hold up in crunch time. (The truth: He is gaining strokes on the field this season.)
It was equally satisfying to quiet them.
“Being that close and being written off here and there and then finally pulling it off,” Zalatoris said, “yeah, I can’t believe I said that, actually.”
It was a window into how much the criticism had stung him. But in the biggest spot of his career, he also proved to himself that he had the goods when it mattered.
The kid is special.
For one week, at least, the PGA Tour avoided its worst nightmare.
The Telegraph reported last week that Cameron Smith – the world No. 2 and reigning Open champion – was signed and set to bolt for LIV Golf following the conclusion of the FedExCup Playoffs. If it’s inaccurate, Smith wasn’t saying – all he offered was an awkward “no comment” during a pre-tournament press conference in which he said his sole focus was his playoff performance.
Fair enough, but for Tour execs the unsettling scenario exists that Smith – the defending Players champion! – could win the $18 million grand prize and then leave for the Tour’s upstart rival as the top-ranked player in the world. It’d be a shocking career decision for Smith, a remarkable coup for Greg Norman and an embarrassment for the Tour that, to this point at least, has been able to retain the services of every top-20 player.
Smith’s FedEx bid on Sunday was derailed before it started, with officials slapping him with a two-shot penalty for a rules violation committed nearly 24 hours earlier. (His closing 70 dropped him into a tie for 13th.) Still, he lost only one spot in the points standings, to No. 3, and he’ll be a significant factor in the proceedings at East Lake.
It's THE storyline to watch moving forward.
The playoff field was trimmed from 125 players to 70 for this week’s BMW Championship.
Technically, the field at Wilmington Country Club will be set at 69 players, after Tommy Fleetwood (56th) opted not to play so he could spend more time with his family in the wake of his mother’s passing.
Here’s who moved inside the number after the opening event:
- Lucas Glover (34th)
- Adam Scott (45th)
- Andrew Putnam (47th)
- Wyndham Clark (70th, despite playing his last five holes in 4 over Sunday)
And here’s who fell out:
- Anirban Lahiri (71st)
- John Huh (73rd)
- Brendon Todd (74th)
- Lanto Griffin (77th; injured)
Now, with one more cutdown looming, there is much to play for: The top 30 at East Lake can carve out the A-schedule for next season and receive exemptions into three of the four 2023 majors.
Rookies Davis Riley (26th) and Sahith Theegala (27th) are hanging onto those coveted spots, while Maverick McNealy (32nd) and Denny McCarthy (35th) are among those who need positive weeks at the BMW to take their careers to the next level. J.J. Spaun, the 54-hole leader in Memphis, dropped into the bubble spot after a disastrous final-round 78.
Suspended PGA Tour players received a harsh reminder last week that – as commissioner Jay Monahan had warned – there’s no road back to the Tour.
A federal judge in California sided with the Tour, ruling that the suspended players who left for LIV Golf should not be allowed to compete in the Tour’s lucrative playoffs.
The greed of the players has been exposed in this entire melodrama, but Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones weren’t necessarily trying to pad their pockets after they had already received significant signing bonuses to join the rival league. Of greater interest: They wanted to shore up their world ranking and improve their FedExCup position. The top 30 in points receive those aforementioned major exemptions; now only Gooch, at No. 24, has a shot.
Of course, as the judge argued last week, that calculation was made (or should have been made) when they decided to leave the security of the Tour for LIV’s rich uncertainty. Players were handsomely compensated for that decision. But their career prospects may have taken a hit, especially with the majors reviewing their qualifying criteria for 2023.
In making his sales pitch to the game’s top players, Norman has been adamant that the Tour could do little to ban them. Not only are they banned for the playoffs, but the broader antitrust lawsuit won’t begin until fall 2023, at the earliest. They’re years away from a resolution.
Gooch, Swafford and Jones clearly thought they could play on both tours or they wouldn’t have asked for the temporary restraining order. Surely others did, too. Now, it’ll be interesting to see whether any of the current LIV players begin to speak out, publicly or anonymously, about whether they’d been deceived or misled throughout this entire process. For better or worse, LIV is their home tour for the foreseeable future.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Dawn of a New Era: Maja Stark. The former Oklahoma State standout became the latest first-time winner on the LPGA after she carded a career-low 63 on the final day at the ISPS Handa World Invitational. (Ewen Ferguson, pictured right, won the men's tournament.) Great news for fans: The likable Stark, 22, who has won NINE times since turning pro last summer, immediately accepted LPGA membership, and it won’t be long before contemporaries like Linn Grant and Pauline Roussin Bouchard also make the leap full time. They’re going to pose problems for the U.S. cup teams for years to come.
Tense Times: Korn Ferry Tour finale. The KFT regular season wrapped up Sunday, with Anders Albertson clinching the 25th and final PGA Tour card by nine points. A couple of other intriguing names who are Tour bound: Justin Suh, a member of that heralded college class of 2019; former Georgia (Go Dawgs) standout Davis Thompson; former Tour winner Michael Kim, who had fallen on hard times the past few years; and impressive up-and-comers Kevin Yu and Vincent Norrman. For the final time, an additional 25 cards will be available over the next three weeks via the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
In Danger: Scottie Scheffler’s No. 1 ranking. It’s wild to think that Scheffler, a four-time winner this season, could possibly not end the season as the top-ranked player in the world, but Smith has sliced into the deficit and actually had a win-to-get-in scenario at stake on Sunday in Memphis. Scheffler hasn’t won since the Masters, but he hasn’t exactly treaded water with a pair of runners-up since, including at the U.S. Open. These guys are good.
Tough Scene: Cam Smith’s after-the-fact penalty. Conspiracy theorists were all over the two-shot penalty that Smith received nearly 24 hours after the infraction occurred and moved him from two shots to four shots behind heading into the final round. (Officials determined Smith didn’t take complete relief after dropping on the fourth hole on Saturday.) Though correct, the ruling didn’t sit well for a couple of reasons. A rules official initially cleared Smith of any wrongdoing, but it wasn’t until another official watched the replay on Saturday night that he thought the possible rules breach deserved another look. The penalty, announced shortly before Smith teed off, left bettors furious, and it also led to more discussion about whether there should be some sort of time limit (an hour or two after play concludes?) for a rule to be enforced. Smith apparently took the penalty in stride, but he also didn't talk to the media after the round.
Well, That Didn’t Work Out: Patrick Reed. One of the chief reasons he said he joined LIV Golf was the opportunity to play less, and yet there was Reed flying halfway around the globe to tee it up in an Asian Tour event in an obvious attempt to earn world-ranking points and solidify his position. In short, it didn’t work: He tied for 31st in Singapore, moving him from 46th in the world to … 49th. Oops.
Positive Signs: Collin Morikawa. It’s been a curious season for Morikawa, who began the year challenging for world No. 1 but has been in such a rut of late that he’s recorded just a single top-25 in his past eight starts. After three weeks off, Morikawa returned with a tie for fifth at the FedEx, renewing hopes that he may have found something to ignite his stagnant game. This week’s BMW will tell us more.
Deserving of a Second Chance: Chambers Bay. The moonscape overlooking the Puget Sound in Washington continues to produce stud winners, from world No. 1 amateur Peter Uihlein (2010) to Jordan Spieth (2015) to the latest champion, Saki Baba of Japan, who so thoroughly dominated her final opponent, 11 and 9, that viewers didn't even get to see the back nine of the scheduled 36-hole final at the U.S. Women's Amateur. Baba was 9 under in the championship match and earned the largest margin of victory since 1961. Bring a U.S. Women's Open to this track that is indisputably fun.
Tip of the Cap: Bubba Watson. Though he’s off to LIV Golf, Watson technically can’t be suspended by the Tour until he hits a shot in competition. Because that won’t happen until 2023, he remained on the official FedExCup list, occupying a spot he no longer needed. That was significant, because if he opted to resign his membership early – again, totally his choice – he’d open the door for Chris Naegel, Rick Lamb and Anthony Quayle (all barely outside the top 200 in FedExCup points) to gain the last few spots into the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where another 25 PGA Tour cards would be up for grabs. Watson’s selfless move could become a career-changer for those guys.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rory McIlroy. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, as the world No. 3 didn’t touch a club for two weeks following his disappointing end to The Open. But Rors didn’t have his A-game in Memphis, shooting 1 under and missing just his second cut in more than a year. He’ll be primed for a bounce-back week at the BMW – now ninth in the standings, he’s still in prime position to become the first player to win three FedExCup titles.