Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2022

Fitzpatrick Makes History At The Open Golf Needed

It is silly at best, and the harsher term “presumptuous” is probably more accurate, to say the men’s United States Open turned on a single shot.  After all, from his opening drive off the 1st tee early Thursday afternoon until his final tap-in on the 18th green at the end of the weekend, winner Matt Fitzpatrick struck his ball 274 times, six less than par for the four circuits of The Country Club’s sprawling composite Open Course and one fewer than joint runners-up Will Zalatoris and Scottie Scheffler.  Just in Fitzpatrick’s final round on Sunday, there were multiple shots that stand out as significant mileposts on his road to victory.

Early in the round, on the uphill 301-yard 5th hole, a short par-4 that tempted the field to go for the green off the tee while severely punishing those whose efforts to do so proved errant, Fitzpatrick unleashed a tee shot that sailed dead straight up the slope and landed just shy of the putting surface before bouncing safely onto the green.  The daring gamble, after fellow competitor Zalatoris had laid up in the fairway, rewarded Fitzpatrick with an easy two putt birdie that at that point moved him into a tie for the lead with Scheffler.

And surely his putt on the 13th green is worthy of mention.  Fitzpatrick’s approach to the par-4 carried to the back of the green, more than 48 feet from the hole.  The long downhill slider to the right was a stern enough test if the goal was simply to hit a good lag and move on with a par.  But Fitzpatrick’s putt met a higher standard, curling down the slope with firm intent until it found the bottom of the cup for an improbable birdie. 

Then there was the downhill 15th hole, with its fairway bisected by the club’s main entry road from Brookline’s Clyde Street.  Fitzpatrick had already made history on the long par-4, closing out Oliver Goss to win the 2013 U.S. Amateur on the 15th green.  As recounted in this space all those years ago, the 18-year-old Fitzpatrick sealed his 4&3 victory in the 36-hole final by sinking a testing putt for par to become the first Englishman in more than a century to win this country’s top amateur tournament.

Perhaps fueled by that happy memory, Fitzpatrick birdied the 15th both Friday and Saturday, but his chance for a third red number appeared to evaporate when his tee shot sailed way right.  However the golf gods, who play a role in every championship, knew that the young Englishman and this par-4 have a special bond.  The tee shot was so far offline that it cleared the deep rough and landed on grass that had been trampled down by thousands of spectators.  From a clean lie, Fitzpatrick hit his approach to 20 feet, and then calmly rolled in a birdie putt that moved him two clear of Zalatoris and Scheffler. 

Any one of those shots might have been the defining moment of this year’s national championship, as could scores of others made over the full four days, not just by the winner, or even the two who shared second place, but also by Hideki Matsuyama or Collin Morikawa or Rory McIlroy, each of whom came tantalizingly close to adding another major title to his golfing resume.  But precisely because so many individual moments comprise a golf tournament, and because history demands a headline, we inevitably pick out one, even as we know that doing so is somewhere between laughable and arrogant.

Or, in this case at least, perhaps not.  For the 2022 U.S. Open offered a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish.  Witness Scheffler’s Saturday.  He started the third round two shots behind Morikawa and Joel Dahmen, stormed through The Country Club’s front side to claim a two shot lead, then gave it all back on the inward nine, ending the day right where he began, two adrift of the leaders, who by that time were Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris.

Scheffler’s adventure was by no means unique.  U.S. Open conditions and a brute of a golf course tested not just the skill but the temperament of every player in the field, right up to the end.  Given that, plus the constant drama and frequent leader board changes, perhaps it is entirely fair to say that the tournament’s defining moment came on the 72nd hole.

Fitzpatrick would need that two shot edge he earned with his birdie on 15, for Zalatoris rolled in a birdie putt of his own one hole later after a brilliant tee shot to less than 6 feet on the par-3, and just ahead Scheffler also crept closer with a birdie of his own on the 17th.  The Masters champion had a look at another birdie on 18, but his 25-footer slid by the high side of the hole. 

That left the final pairing, and Fitzpatrick’s narrow advantage was in jeopardy when his tee shot on the 18th turned left into a deep fairway bunker.  With Zalatoris safely in the middle of the fairway, wedge in hand, the leader faced a shot he had long considered his weakness.  The fairway bunker play was from 156 yards and needed to get up quickly to clear not only the high lip of the trap, but a mounded island of grass in the middle of the bunker, just ahead of Fitzpatrick’s ball.  Walking to his own ball, Zalatoris looked at Fitzpatrick’s lie and, as he said later, thought it would be “pretty ballsy” to try to reach the green.

But that is exactly what the young Englishman did.  With veteran caddy Billy Foster steadying him, Fitzpatrick set aside his doubts about hitting from fairway bunkers.  In the crucible of the final hole of a major championship, he struck a career-defining iron that launched out of the sand, easily carrying the mound and lip ahead, sailing into the sky and arcing down onto the green, where it settled 18 feet above the hole.

The drama wasn’t done.  Zalatoris fought to the very end, putting his wedge approach inside of Fitzpatrick’s, and just missing a valiant birdie try that would have forced a playoff, after Fitzpatrick safely two-putted for par.  The 25-year-old is less than two years removed from the developmental Korn Ferry Tour and now already has three second place finishes at majors.  He appears destined for multiple grand golfing moments, but this day’s moment had already passed.

When it came, after so many others had vied for attention, it belonged to the soft-spoken young Englishman who is now just the third player, after Jack Nicklaus and Juli Inkster, to win both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open on the same golf course.  Fitzpatrick is one of the most popular players on the PGA Tour with his fellow golfers, as was evident in their response to his win.  McIlroy came out of the locker room to hug him, and Zalatoris graciously told Fitzpatrick’s parents, “if I had to lose to anyone, I’m glad it was your son.”  Perhaps the surest sign of all was the tweet from PGA Tour curmudgeon Tyrrell Hatton, who began his congratulatory message with “I’m not crying, you’re crying!!!!!”

Crying too was caddy Foster, who has looped for four decades, including for the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, and Thomas Bjorn.  But Sunday was the first time he got to take home an 18th hole pin flag from a major tournament.  It was the capstone of a day on which it felt good to be a fan of golf, a sport that for months has been about anger and greed.  There will be more of that to come, of course.  But thanks to Matt Fitzpatrick, his pursuers, and a golf course that specializes in historic moments, for one weekend at least the talk among fans was not about Saudi money or obnoxious greed, but about birdies and bogeys, and a shot for the ages.

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