Take a moment to look at the width of your thumbnail. It’s the distance between salvation and damnation for Will Zalatoris.
Less than an inch. That’s all it would have taken for Zalatoris’ final putt to fall in the cup on the 18th green of the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. That’s all it would have taken to propel Zalatoris into the playoffs at the US Open, his second in the last two majors. That’s all he needed to hang on a little longer in his agonizing pursuit of his first major.
Instead, Zalatoris’ ball just skirted the left edge of the cup, close enough to peer into its depths and decide, no, not today.
As the ball passed, Zalatoris’ slender frame folded in on itself like a tent collapsing in a strong wind. Next to him, another player – in this case Matt Fitzpatrick – celebrated a middle finger which, with an extra inch or two here or there, could have belonged to Zalatoris.
In the last seven majors he has completed, Zalatoris has missed the cut in one. The other six went like this: T6, 2, T8, T6, 2, T2. It’s something beyond the close-but-no-cigar territory, still a bridesmaid. It’s bordering on some sort of awful, tantalizing curse.
“To have three finalists so far in my major league career…I’d pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half,” he said in the minutes after his loss, still looking dazed. . “I would probably be a three-time major champion at this point.”
Zalatoris is 25 – older than Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy won their first majors, but still very young in golf terms. Brooks Koepka was 28 when he won his first major. Dustin Johnson was 31 years old. And Zalatoris can play in almost 50 major tournaments until he is 37, the age when Sergio Garcia won his first.
He’s not the first player to pound on the door before breaking it down. Jason Day had nine top-10 finishes before finally winning the 2015 PGA Championship. Henrik Stenson had nine top-10 finishes before winning the 2016 Open Championship. Phil Mickelson had an incredible 17 top-10 finishes before winning the Masters 2004. Zalatoris now holds the dubious honor of greatest player never to win a major tournament, but more than a couple to have held that title – Mickelson, Johnson – threw it away with panache.
“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing,” Zalatoris said. “I’m not afraid to be in the lead. I have nothing to lose here. So let’s keep doing what we’re doing and eventually we’ll get one.
That’s the right way it could go. But there is another way.
The ringless team sports stars — Charles Barkley, Dan Marino, Patrick Ewing — have something of an adorable loser quality about them. It is possible to be an elite player in a non-championship team sport.
Golf, however – there’s a hard and fast line between great and very good. Fitzpatrick crossed it on Sunday. Not Zalatoris. And the history of golf is littered with if onlys.
Colin Montgomerie had 10 top-10 finishes in majors – including a Zalatoris-esque two 2nd in solo and a T2 – without a win. Lee Westwood (19 top 10, 0 wins) was the last absentee from three of the great major tournaments of the 21st century: Tiger Woods’ victory over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 US Open, Stewart Cink’s victory over Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship, and Mickelson’s 2010 Masters. Rickie Fowler (12 Top 10, 0 wins) finished in the top 5 of four major tournaments in 2014 but did not win any.
Each of them surely thought that the big victory would come one day – it had to, right? – but that day never came.
If there’s one saving grace to Zalatoris’ many near-misses, it’s this: the scar tissue is now so thick that a drill couldn’t pierce it. There’s no need to fear the worst thing that can happen in a major when the worst thing has already happened to you.
“The comfort level in these situations is getting better and better,” he said. “It’s like I have nothing to lose. Either it fits or it doesn’t.
No matter how the next majors, or years or decades, turn out, there’s this: the way he’s fared so far, Zalatoris is going to be a gallery favorite with every major he enters. The pro-Willy Z contingent at Brookline cheered him on the first tee shot and comforted him after the final putt. If he gets that first major, whether it’s next month at St. Andrews or years from now, it will be one of the most popular wins in recent golf history.
Zalatoris will deserve all the praise that day because he had to go through hell to get it.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.