Will Zalatoris debuted a brand-new caddie this week, Joel Stock. He threw him right into the fire.
Or should we say he threw him onto the rocks? That’s where Zalatoris made his most important decision of the week — with Stock’s help. And then, a few minutes later, he proved their decision correct. His prize was a $2.7 million first-place check and the first PGA Tour victory of his promising young career.
But let’s rewind to better understand how we got to a rock wall on the third playoff hole of the first tournament of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Last week, Zalatoris severed ties with longtime caddie Ryan Gobles mid-tournament at the Wyndham Championship, revealing in an emotional press conference why he’d split with his good friend.
“Yeah, it was the toughest decision I’ve had to make in my golf career,” Zalatoris said. “Ryan’s a brother for life.”
He explained that he needed a change, that a stretch of frustrating golf had begun to affect their off-course relationship and that despite the awkwardness of the split, they’d hugged it out and would remain friends.
Enter new caddie Joel Stock, who finished out the week at the Wyndham and guided Zalatoris to a 66-68 weekend. After their T21 finish, he got the call back for this week’s FedEx Cup playoff opener. Seventy-four-and-a-half holes later he and Zalatoris stood on the rocks beside the 11th green, their third playoff hole, considering their options.
Zalatoris’ ball had bounced some half-dozen times or more, pinballing around a narrow stretch of rock before it came to rest wedged between the collar of the grass and the rock wall separating water from land. His playoff opponent Sepp Straka had plunged his own tee shot in the water and then launched one from the drop zone into the back bunker, so he was putting for double bogey. But Zalatoris wasn’t sitting in such an easy spot either.
Stock had played psychologist all day, feeding Zalatoris a steady diet of dad jokes. Zalatoris’ favorite was a real groaner that went something like this:
Q: What’s brown and sticky?
A: “A stick!”
But now he was more serious.
“Joel told me about three times, ‘Hey, Sepp’s got four feet for [double-bogey] 5, go back, go back,’” Zalatoris said post-round. Stock wanted him to head to the drop zone and try to get up and down for bogey and the win. The heroic rock shot was tempting, given he was just 20 feet from the hole. But if he attempted the shot and failed, Zalatoris risked bouncing it off the grass lip and back into the water, leading to double bogey or worse.
“I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t giving up an easy chance where I could just kind of maybe pop one up on the green and get an easy two putt,” Zalatoris said. “And it was just not doable. I couldn’t get the club below basically half of the equator of the ball, the lower half of the ball.”
He listened to Stock and headed back to the drop zone, determined to make his fortune from there. His next shot was 92 yards. He hit a wedge to seven feet. And then he buried the putt, dripping it in the middle of the cup to secure the win.
“Considering where Sepp was when he had four feet for 5, there’s no reason for me to try that shot and make it bank right into the grass and go back in the water and all of a sudden I’ve lost the golf tournament,” Zalatoris said.
That’s the strange thing: Even though Zalatoris actually took the drop, the fact that his ball stayed dry may have won him the golf tournament. If his tee shot had splashed, Straka could have aimed at the middle of the green and two-putted for the victory. Instead he’d assumed Zalatoris had an easy up and down, aimed for the pin himself and found the water en route to 5.
“We went back to the drop zone and obviously it paid off,” Zalatoris concluded. “I guess you could say it’s a fortunate break that it stayed up, but obviously I had to earn it after what happened.”
To the victor go the well-earned spoils. And some to his caddie, too.