At the US Open, Matt Fitzpatrick stays focused and beats Will Zalatoris

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BROOKLINE, Mass. – It is programmed into the heads of rats like Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris that golf is not played against the competitor in your group. It is played against the court – and only the court. Get distracted by what the player next to you is doing – the club he draws, the line he takes, the score he posts – and doom awaits. The earth below and in front is the enemy. The guy next door is quiet company.

So why, as they walked toward the 18th green at the Country Club in the dying light of an unusually cool New England Sunday night, Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris – 52 years old and no major championships between them – chatted casually? This was neither Northwestern vs. Wake Forest, a fight between their high schools, or it was a quick nine between 20-somethings before the sun faded and the foam flowed. This was the 72nd hole in the US Open.

“There’s just a lot of things going on,” Fitzpatrick said.

How to fix it? It is a measure of how glorious the gulf produced on a cloudy, windy day that what lay behind this last pairing should be discussed at the moment, with so much of importance ahead. Their balls were certainly on the green – in manners to consider. The US Open hung in the balance. The green was surrounded by crowds who appreciated what they saw. Over 71½ holes, only Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris could understand how it felt to pull it off.

“I just don’t think people are aware of how hard it is to win a major,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are only four of them a year. Yes, it just requires a little extra.”

Fitzpatrick, a 27-year-old Englishman, is the champion of the 122nd US Open because he made a more brilliant stroke than Zalatoris on his way to a final 68 that left him at 6 under par 274 for the championship. There’s a part of Zalatoris who definitely walks away from here, thinking that the 14-foot birdie putt he had at the end – the putt that slid gently past and made him crawl to his knees and topple his putter over the top of His head – is the shot that defines the tournament. It could have forced an endgame. It did not, and Fitzpatrick won by a single shot.

Matt Fitzpatrick digs up the sand to win the US Open for the first major title

That it leaves Zalatoris with a second-place finish at the PGA Championship in a playoff loss to Justin Thomas last month and a second-place finish at the 2021 Masters for Hideki Matsuyama – and six cuts at major championships where his worst finish is a draw for eighth – only gets you to believe that he will step up to the 72nd hole by another major in the near future with much to discuss with the one who happens to be his playing partner.

“I would pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half,” Zalatoris said, “and I would probably be a three-time major champion at this point.”

The leaderboard next to the 18th and the accounts that will exist forever will show that Scottie Scheffler – enormously skilled, immensely skilled, No. 1 golfer in the world and the reigning Masters champion – drew between Zalatoris, a shot back from Fitzpatrick. That is undeniably true. The other names near the top – Matsuyama at 3 under, double major champion Collin Morikawa and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy at 2 under – made it seem as if Fitzpatrick was killing giants.

Really, he killed the guy next to him – Zalatoris, the 25-year-old who was born in California, grew up in Texas and is thin enough to look like a putter.

“You can not play match against anyone all day,” Zalatoris said, “because someone else can do something.”

Yet so much of something happened in the last mating. Take the small par-3 11. where they arrived in a draw at 5 under. Zalatoris ran in a birdie putt from 18 feet. Fitzpatrick tried to match the momentum – and blew his 17-foot off and then missed the comeback. Oops. It’s a birdie, a bogey – and a swing with two shots.

Where else would you look?

“You have plenty of time yet,” Fitzpatrick said. “But you’d rather be two clear than two behind.”

play the course? They played each other. On the 15th tee, where they arrived in a draw, they had to wait for about 10 minutes for the group in front of them. How to handle thumb-twiddling time with four holes left in the US Open?

“Matt and I were just joking,” Zalatoris said. Why not? When Keegan Bradley and Jon Rahm finally got ahead, Fitzpatrick’s veteran caddy, Billy Foster, said, “Play well today, boys.”

“Like we were on the first tee,” Zalatoris said. “It was fun.”

What a word: funny. More than just any sport, major championship golf can deprive a competitor of any shield, exposing him or her to all to see. Growing up, chasing the light – it’s fun. This? There is a chance for equal money lost rather than winning.

So here was Fitzpatrick, after that eternity on the 15th tee, squirting his drive deep into the gallery to the right. Here’s the time to lose the major, right?

“I get there,” he said, “and the ball sits perfectly.”

Another building block for the first major championship: an unexpected break. Fitzpatrick pulled his 5-iron and slung the ball 220 yards to the green. The ensuing 18-foot birdie putt – and Zalatoris’ suffocating lie in the rough, leading to a bogey – brought the next two-shot turn.

By the time they reached the 18th tee, Scheffler was done. They were all that was left. Zalatoris blistered a driver, cut beautifully down the left side. Fitzpatrick had all the evidence right in front of him on what to do – and he hooked a 3-wood into a bunker. Death?

When he inquired what awaited him – an uphill of about 159 yards to the flag – Fitzpatrick also considered the man, not the pitch he was playing against. Fitzpatrick knew that Zalatoris is among the best iron players on the PGA Tour.

“It’s good to know your stats,” Fitzpatrick said. “You know who you’re playing against.”

Knock out? Given his situation, perhaps. Given his opponent, no. Fitzpatrick’s only choice: Pull a 9-iron and go for the green.

“When I look back on it,” Fitzpatrick said, “it all happened so fast.”

Don’t worry, Matt. You get the chance to see it again. And again. And again.

“Matt’s shot at 18 is likely to appear in the rest of U.S. Open history,” Zalatoris said.

It will be because it landed safely over the hole. That would be because that was exactly what was needed to beat the man next door. That will be because it won the US Open.

“I just love winning,” Fitzpatrick said. “I love winning. I do not care who it is, but I just want to beat everyone.”

This week, Fitzpatrick beat the other 155 in the field. On Sunday, he beat the man he was paired with. Head down, the blinders on. That’s enough to beat the pitch. That’s enough to become US Open champion.

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