Will Zalatoris was asked about the grind and how he keeps doing it. He was stuck on no victories over his two-plus years on golf’s biggest circuit, stuck with a slew of near-misses and stuck with questions of when the breakthrough would come.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s frustrating, motivating, all those things,” he said Friday. “I mean, I’ve been close all year and I think that over the last month I’ve learned a lot about my game, and I think it’s something that going forward I’m pretty excited. Like I said, yesterday was some of the worst luck I think I’ve had in a while and it was nice to kind of see it all come together today. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.
“You can’t play this good that often and not get a win, so just got to kind of let it get in the way.”
On Sunday, it did. Finally. In one of the one wildest finishes you’ll see, no less.
In the end, Zalatoris won the FedEx St. Jude Championship on the third hole of a playoff with Sepp Straka, his 7-foot bogey putt on the par-3 11th at TPC Southwind clinching it. Though that was far from the only clutch stroke and decision made in the gloaming in Memphis. A four-hole, hour-long sequence will no doubt be replayed in Zalatoris’ head for a while.
— On the 450-yard, par-4 18th during regulation, we’ll call what happened here The Shout. Tied with Straka at 15-under, Zalatoris hits his third shot to 10 feet, drops the putt for par, then yells. It was telling. If there’s been a criticism of the 25-year-old’s game, it’s been his putting, and he let that out in a scream: “What are they going to say now?!?”
— Straka, in the group behind, also pars and they move to the first hole of the playoff. We’ll label this Routine, only because little else was over this stretch. Both players are on the green in two, both two-putt, both make par. Back to 18 for the second hole of the playoff.
— Chaos! On the second hole of the playoff, Zalatoris hits his tee shot right, it hits the cart path, his ball bounces up into a tree, and it settles feet from the boundary fence — which was followed by Straka’s tee shot, which went left, into the penalty area and feet from water. Each player then made a pair of wise decisions and putts. Zalatoris elected to hit a short wedge out instead of trying to run his ball up to the green that was guarded by the water on the left; Straka, seeing that, took a penalty drop, and hit to 6 feet from 150 yards out. On the putts, Zalatoris made a left-to-right 10-footer after a pitch on, and Straka matched the par.
— CHAOS! All caps. On the third hole of the playoff, on the short, 151-yard, par-3 11th, Zalatoris hits an iron right, the ball dribbles along the bricks that divide the green from water — and it nestles up against a layer of sod while somehow not getting wet. Straka wasn’t as lucky; his tee shot went in the same direction and splashed. From there, Straka hit into the bunker over the green after taking his drop in the drop zone, he hit on with his fourth shot — and Zalatoris, after a long look at his lie, picked his ball up, also went back to the drop and hit to 7 feet.
Which he rolled in. And finally the playoff was over. And finally he was a winner.
“Adrenaline’s still pumping,” Zalatoris said during his greenside interview on NBC.
“Looking forward to having some celebrations tonight.”
Zalatoris is finally a winner. There will be more. A lot more. Especially if he’s figured out the flatstick.
The leaderboard breakdown
— J.J. Spaun leads by one shot entering the final round. He’s at 13-under, Sepp Straka is at 12-under, Will Zalatoris and Trey Mullinax are at 11-under, and Tyler Duncan and Troy Merritt are at 10-under. Notably, Cam Smith was also at 11-under, then was docked two strokes for an improper drop during Saturday’s third round, and he starts at nine-under.
— Zalatoris birdies his first two holes, and he pulls into a share of the lead. Zalatoris and Spaun are at 13-under, Straka is at 12-under, Denny McCarthy is at 11-under, and 13 players are at 10-under.
— Zalatoris birdies the 578-yard, par-5 3rd on a 15-foot putt, and he takes a one-shot lead. Zalatoris is at 14-under, Spaun is at 13-under, Straka is at 12-under, and Adam Scott is at 11-under.
— Spaun bogeys the 3rd after hitting his third shot into a greenside bunker, and Zalatoris’ lead is two shots. Zalatoris is at 14-under, Spaun and Straka are at 12-under, and Scott and Tony Finau are at 11-under.
— Spaun birdies the 423-yard, par-4 6th on a 12-foot putt, and he moves to within a shot of the lead. Zalatoris is at 14-under, Spaun is at 13-under, and Scott, Straka and Brian Harman are at 12-under.
— Zalatoris bogeys the 475-yard, par-4 7th after hitting his tee shot up against a tree, and he falls into a share of the lead. Zalatoris and Spaun are at 13-under, Scott, Straka and Harman are at 12-under, and Finau, Jon Rahm, Lucas Glover and Collin Morikawa are at 11-under.
— Harman birdies the 468-yard, par-4 13th on a 13-foot putt, and he moves into a share of the lead with Zalatoris and Spaun. Zalatoris, Spaun and Harman are at 13-under, Scott and Straka are at 12-under, and Rahm, Glover, Morikawa, Finau and Andrew Putnam are at 11-under.
— Spaun bogeys the 7th after hitting his tee shot into a bunker, and he falls out of the lead. Zalatoris and Harman are at 13-under, Scott, Spaun and Straka are at 12-under, and Rahm, Glover, Morikawa, Finau and Putnam are at 11-under.
— Harman bogeys the 220-yard par-3 14h after hitting his tee shot into a greenside bunker, and he falls out of the lead. Zalatoris is at 13-under, Harman, Glover and Straka are at 12-under, and Scott, Rahm, Morikawa, Finau, Putnam and Wyndham Clark are at 11-under.
— Glover birdies the 489-yard, par-4 17th after hitting his second shot to 6 feet, and he moves into a share of the lead. Zalatoris and Glover are at 13-under, Morikawa, Harman and Straka are at 12-under, and Scott, Rahm, Finau and Putnam are at 11-under.
— Zalatoris birdies the 447-yard, par-4 10th after hitting his second shot to 7 feet, and he retakes a one-shot lead. He’s at 14-under, Glover is at 13-under, Morikawa, Harman and Straka are at 12-under, and Scott, Rahm, Finau and Putnam are at 11-under.
— Straka birdies the 389-yard, par-4 12th on a 13-foot putt, and he moves into a share of the lead. Zalatoris and Straka are at 14-under, Glover, Harman, Finau and Mullinax are at 12-under, and Scott, Rahm, Morikawa, Putnam and Matt Fitzpatrick are at 11-under.
— Zalatoris birdies the 512-yard, par-5 16th, receiving some good luck when his tee shot hit off a tree right and went back into the fairway, and he takes a one-shot lead. Zalatoris is at 15-under, Straka is at 14-under, and Mullinax is at 13-under.
— Straka birdies the 16, and he and Zalatoris are tied for the lead again. Zalatoris and Straka are at 15-under, and Mullinax is at 13-under.
— On the 450-yard, par-4 18th, Zalatoris rolls in a 10-foot putt for par, and he stays at 15-under with Straka. Mullinax bogeys the hole, and he is at 12-under with Glover and Harman.
— In the group behind, Straka hits the 18th green in two, two-putts, and he and Zalatoris move on to a playoff, which will start back on the 18th.
— On the first hole of the playoff, Zalatoris hits into the first cut right of the fairway with his tee shot, and Straka hits the fairway. On their second shots, Zalatoris hits it short and to the right, but is on the green, and Straka hits it pin high and 24 feet away. On their birdie putts, Zalatoris misses just to the right from 42 feet, and Straka rolls his putt 6 feet past the hole before making the comebacker. The playoff continues, back on 18.
— On the second hole of the playoff, Zalatoris hits his tee shot right, it hits the cart path and skips right but remains in play, while Straka’s ball lands into the penalty area left but is not in the water. On Zalatoris’ second shot, from up against a green boundary fence, he pitches back out to the fairway. On Straka’s second stroke, he elects to take penalty relief after watching Zalatoris hit, and he hits his third stroke, from 150 yards out, to 6 feet. On Zalatoris’ third shot, from 94 yards out, to 13 feet. On Zalatoris’ par putt, he sinks the left-to-righter for par. On Straka’s par putt, he makes his left-to-righter, The playoff continues, on 11.
— On the third hole of the playoff, the 151-yard, par-3 11th, things get wild. Zalatoris hits his tee shot right, and it stays out of the water by hanging up in the bricks that divide the green from the water — then Straka hits into the water. On Straka’s third shot, from the drop zone, he hits into the bunker over the green. On Straka’s fourth shot, he hits out of the bunker to 4 feet. On Zalatoris’ second shot, he elects to take an unplayable, goes back to the drop zone, and he hits it to 7 feet. Zalatoris makes his bogey putt, and he wins his first PGA Tour tournament.
The final word
“It was a grind. This week, didn’t have my best stuff on Thursday and I kept telling Joel, just keep waiting till the weekend, and to see the decision pay off at the last was pretty cool.” — Zalatoris on NBC, as tears started to form