BROOKLINE, Mass. — Will Zalatoris couldn’t help but peek into Matt Fitzpatrick’s ball.
He and Fitzpatrick headed for their tee shots at the Country Club’s 18th hole on Sunday. Madness was unfolding all around them. The US Open was on the line. Thousands of rowdy fans had just poured into the fairway, and now Boston police were trying — and failing — to keep the crowd behind the rope line. Fitzpatrick, clinging to a one-shot lead, tried to keep his head down as he navigated the fracas, but he still managed to get swallowed up by the crowd. It took three police officers to finally clear a path for him.
Zalatoris continued his walk. Fitzpatrick’s tee shot was somewhere in the left fairway bunker, and Zalatoris wanted to know exactly what Fitzpatrick was facing with his approach. His own ball was in the fairway and he didn’t know if he needed a birdie or a par to make the playoffs. What Zalatoris saw gave him a glimmer of hope. Fitzpatrick’s ball was nestled in a shallow part of the bunker, partially blocked by an island of rough. It would take a small miracle to get him on the green.
“I thought even going there was going to be crazy,” Zalatoris said. “It’s probably 1 in 20 – at best – to pass.”
Suddenly a par could take Zalatoris into the playoffs. A birdie could win the tournament outright. A mixture of tension, apprehension and excitement swirled through the air.
Fitzpatrick, when he finally arrived at his ball, saw it the same way. It was, to put it bluntly, a while. Whatever happens next, it could haunt or fill him for years to come. He discussed his options with his caddie, Billy Foster. He fired a 9-iron and aimed a hair to the left. It was time to trust everything that had brought him to this moment.
He took a few deep breaths, wiggled the club a few times, then got into the stroke. It all happened so fast, the dense crowd was still murmuring, as if caught off guard, as Fitzpatrick pulled the club away. But the sound of the club hitting the ball echoed through the air like the crack of a whip.
Fitzpatrick watched it climb and fly through the air, gently drifting to the right, then heard the roar as it fell from the sky and nestled behind the hairpin. Zalatoris almost couldn’t believe it.
“To achieve this in this situation is incredible,” Zalatoris said. “When they show future US Open highlights, it’s a shot that will be shown. Because it was just awesome.”
The US Open wasn’t officially over until Zalatoris narrowly missed a birdie putt on the 18th, giving Fitzpatrick a chance to celebrate his first major after his par putt. But the bunker shot is one that will go down in US Open lore, a shot indicative of Fitzpatrick’s combination of grit and genius. He hit 17 of 18 greens in his final round 68, something only Nick Faldo (1996 Masters) and Brooks Koepka (2017 US Open) have managed in the last 30 years at the majors.
Zalatoris and Scottie Scheffler (who tied Zalatoris for second place after a 67 finish) threw hay at him all afternoon, each earning a share of the lead at one point, but Fitzpatrick – who grew to Sheffield, a working-class steel town in England – has withstood it all.
“It’s one of the best shots I’ve ever made,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ll be honest, I’ve really struggled with fairway bunker shots all year. I’m a quick player, and when I think back, it all happened so fast. The natural ability has kind of took over. I just played the shot that was at hand. It kind of came out like a tight fade. It was amazing.
It would be a bit of a stretch to consider Fitzpatrick, 27, an outsider, even though his braces would help him pass as a teenager through most English secondary schools. He won the US Amateur at Country Club in 2013, played on three Ryder Cup teams for Europe and won the European Tour seven times.
But before Sunday, he had never won on the PGA Tour and had only two top 10 finishes in major championships. He felt like the kind of golfer who would always be a prisoner of his own physical limitations, a bantamweight in the ring with middleweights and heavyweights. He could hit above his weight class at times, but no one expected him to smash the ball off the tee.
But gradually, that’s exactly what started to happen, particularly this year. Fitzpatrick’s ball speed kept climbing until it is now similar (175 mph) to Justin Thomas (176 mph) and Dustin Johnson (177 mph). On Sunday, he frequently edged out Zalatoris, which he says gave him an extra boost of confidence every time he headed for his ball.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I feel like [Fitzpatrick] made extreme improvements off the tee in a matter of months,” Scheffler said. “I played with him in Austin this year and he wasn’t as far as he is now. I don’t know what he does. Maybe he’s on the “Bryson Program” or something. He hits very well. He definitely deserved to win this golf tournament.”
Fitzpatrick laughed when briefed on Scheffler’s comments and couldn’t resist what appeared to be a little dig at Bryson DeChambeau.
“I just took a drug test and it came back negative,” Fitzpatrick joked.
Fitzpatrick revealed that since 2020 he has been working hard with his team, trying to get stronger and faster. Some of his progress has been derailed by injuries, but recently things have really started to click into place.
“I’ll be honest, it worked wonders,” Fitzpatrick said. “Maybe three years ago, if I was in this position and played with Will in the final group, I would worry that I was 15 or 20 behind him all day. I felt comfortable playing knowing that I was going to be in front of him, which obviously gave me confidence for the next shot. When you hit in front of people, it’s obviously very pleasant.
The moment Fitzpatrick took control of the tournament, however, proved to be a combination of patience, strength and a bit of luck. He and Zalatoris – tied for the lead at 5 under – had to wait almost 10 agonizing minutes on the 15th tee, a break so big that Zalatoris began to stretch as if he was pushing his way through a yoga class to beginners. When they were finally cleared to strike, Fitzpatrick launched his drive well to the right of the fairway. Zalatoris hit a much better ball that seemed to nestle in the short grass. But when they got to their tee shots, Zalatoris’ ball was buried in the rough; Fitzpatrick was seated neatly, in an area trampled by the crowd.
“I didn’t realize how far right it had gone,” Fitzpatrick said. “I should have shouted before, so I hope it didn’t affect anyone there. But it’s funny, I feel like all year we just had moments where we didn’t “We just didn’t take a break. Hadn’t had a lie, hadn’t had a rebound, and this time I get there and the ball is perfectly seated.”
Fitzpatrick ripped a towering 5 iron from that perfect lie from 220 yards. He knew it was great, and he settled 18 feet from the hole.
“One of the best shots I’ve had all day,” he said.
Zalatoris made a bogey from the front bunker. Suddenly, Fitzpatrick had a putt to take a 2-shot lead with three holes to play.
He rolled it to the heart of the cup.
He couldn’t help but follow him with a vicious fist pump. He had long felt neglected and rejected in the world of golf, and now he did, a major championship within his reach. He walked to the next tee with a bounce in his step.
“My parents always taught me to be humble and down to earth,” Fitzpatrick said. “If they don’t bring me down to earth, my friends are. It’s always been me. It doesn’t matter how well I play. But I’ve always been competitive. And I love to win. I love to win I don’t care who it is, I just want to beat everyone. I don’t show it much because I like to be quite reserved. I love to beat everyone. It’s as simple as that. J love winning.”