Thursday, June 1, 2023

U.S. Open 2022: Will Zalatoris’ rise, Rory McIlroy’s agony among final takeaways from The Country Club

BROOKLINE, Mass. — It could be argued that a man without a single victory on the PGA Tour in his career is best golfer in the world this year. Golf, man, is weird as hell.

Will Zalatoris is five strokes from holding three major championship trophies. Golf balls were struck 86,642 times in his three runner-up finishes at the 2021 Masters, 2022 PGA Championship and 2022 U.S. Open, and if five of the right ones go differently, Zalatoris would hold as many major trophies as Hale Irwin and Jordan Spieth. He would be three quarters of the way to the career grand slam.

Of course, that is not how any of this works, but it has to be frustrating to hold the 2022 aggregate major championship lead at 13 under by two over Rory McIlroy and have nothing to show for it.

“I think this one probably is going to take a little bit more processing than that one,” said Zalatoris. “Like I said, I’ve got no regrets. I thought I played great all week, especially getting off to the start that I did [Sunday]. It stings, obviously, to have three runner-ups so far in my career in majors. But keep knocking on that door. We’re obviously doing the right things. I’d pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half, and I’d probably be a three-time major champion at this point. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”

It’s extremely difficult to reconcile the reality that the two best major golfers this year are thus far empty-handed, but if golf rewarded aggregate scores, the throes of the moment on Saturdays and Sundays at majors would be rendered meaningless. I’m not sure how the folks running golf 100 years ago got it right, but 72 holes (and not 54!) seems to be just enough to weed out the pretenders yet not so many that attrition starts to build. In other words, it’s perfect.

Zalatoris should be among the five favorites for The Open Championship at St. Andrews a month from now. Part of that is because his statistical profile is peerless thus far this year in majors, but the other part may not have come through on your television on Sunday.

Though he looks like a featherweight, Zalatoris plays like a heavyweight. These moments have certainly not fallen how he wanted, but it’s not for lack of bravery. Leading a U.S. Open is as uncomfortable as it gets, but Zalatoris could not have been more at home. The look in his eye, the jump in his step. Not every flusher is created equal, and Zalatoris has a burning that can’t be self-started and can barely be described.

In a game filled with oft-pretenders, he has the makeup of a major champion. That doesn’t mean he’ll win one, which is the madness of this sport, but it means that all those losses simply serve as kindling.

The lightest man in golf carries real weight on major leaderboards. He might not win at the Old Course in July — he might never win a major! — but in a world where not all runner-up finishes are created equal, Zalatoris has proven as much in losses as most have proven in wins.

Here are nine other takeaways coming out of the 122nd United States Open.

1. Another missed opportunity: What is it going to be like if McIlroy wins another major? I thought about that a lot this week, and he hinted at it Friday evening when he intimated that he’s playing almost another career altogether than the one that launched Rory Inc. He said after the second round of the U.S. Open that winning another major at this point would almost be like winning his first, and you know the emotion that will come if he grabs a fifth will make his Ryder Cup tears look like he was laughing.

Will it ever come, though? This week was confusing. He’s been flushing it for months and had one of the truly great putting weeks of his life. Still, he didn’t win. It’s easy to lose the faith or point to mental blockades as the reason for his drought. Perhaps this is true; perhaps it is not. It’s difficult to know. Perhaps major variance tilted in his direction so much early in his career that we became confused about his profile as a golfer. Perhaps he did, too. Perhaps he just needs to short irons for the next 30 days.

What I do know is this: McIlroy remains unparalleled theater. I said Thursday after Rory shot a 67 that his play gives his sport-shaping words gravity, and gravity rules the world. The opposite is true, too. His words give his game depth and make him the easiest player in the world to cheer. There are so few athletes who contain the crossroads of preeminent humanity, genuine thoughtfulness and generational talent.

Many have asked, “Why do I keep coming back when I already know what’s going to happen and that it’s not going to be anything I desire?” There’s nobody like him, though. Maybe not in all of sports. There are more thoughtful pros, perhaps, and certainly better talents. But there are not more thoughtful and more talented athletes. The real question is not why we keep coming back for more but rather, “How could you not?”

2. Eleven rocked: Brookline was my favorite U.S. Open track since Shinnecock in 2018, and my favorite hole on it was the short, wily 11th. USGA CEO Mike Wahn was enthusiastic discussing the course while standing with a few of us Friday: “Wait until you see how it sets up on the weekend.” Though they didn’t reduce its distance to double-digits, it still nearly played to a sub-100 number because of pin positions and wind. There aren’t many better major championship holes than No. 11 at Brookline, and it showed out all week.

3. Is Brooks cooked? After popping off Friday about how he’s disliked because of his confidence (which … what?!), Koepka faded hard on the weekend with a 75-77 closing kick. It was a deviation from U.S. Open Brooks and potentially a sign that his major-winning days are over. Koepka is still young enough to win several more, of course, but injuries have always been a concern with him, and there’s the possibility that he simply caught heat for a three-year stretch and won all the majors he was ever going to win.

This would not be without precedent. Many multiple-time major winners did so in a condensed period of time. (Think about Padraig Harrington winning three in two years or even Arnold Palmer winning all seven of his in just six years.) A year after finishing in the top six across three of the four majors, Koepka has been no better than 55th in the first three this year. He hasn’t gone a full year without a major top 10 since 2013. That might mean nothing, but it also might represent the beginning of the decline of Koepka as a major championship contender for the rest of his career.

4. The world No. 1 as an emblem: This year has felt like a bit of a shift in terms of the generation that’s contending at major championships. The oldest golfer in the top six this week was McIlroy, who is 33. McIlroy was also the second-oldest in the top eight at the PGA Championship as well as the second-oldest in the top nine at the Masters, where he finished runner-up. The majority of those top finishers in the first three majors were in their 20s, and Scottie Scheffler — now with a T2 at the U.S. Open to go with his green jacket — is representative of this movement.

And while the younger generation sometimes lacks the on-course excitement of a young Tiger Woods (obviously) and perhaps even a young McIlroy, they are also seemingly wiser and more mature than any generation in golf has been in a long time. This week, both Zalatoris and Scheffler spoke with winsomeness and perspective that’s rare in sports and a delight to cover.

“My wife asked me last night when I got home, ‘What were three emotions you felt today?'” said Scheffler on Saturday night. “I was, like, ‘Well, I played golf today, so I was happy and sad.’ And so basically every time I play golf from here on out, I’m going to be happy and sad. It’s just the nature of the game.”

Scheffler is not traditionally thrilling as a golfer, but like many of the golfers his age, there’s something deep beneath the surface that’s more intriguing than he lets on. He flashed this at the Masters when he confessed that he wept the morning of his final round, and while rooting for this group of 20-somethings feels different than some groups of yesteryear, they’re still a fascinating group to cover even if it doesn’t seem as obvious as it did previously.

5. A fatal flaw: One of the distinct memories I have from the first three major championships of the year came early in the PGA Championship. On the long par-3 14th hole, Collin Morikawa hit an iron that got batted out of the air so swiftly it seemed as if an enormous Dikembe Mutombo was floating in the sky. The toughest conditions this week at Brookline led to a 77 on Saturday that took Morikawa from the 36-hole co-leader to completely out of contention. He sandwiched that 77 with a pair of 66s in calmer conditions, and while it’s not as if Morikawa is completely consigned to only playing well in the easiest weather, he also might not hit a heavy enough ball to thrive when it’s howling. That doesn’t mean he can’t (or won’t) win several more majors, but it’s something to remember at such events going forward.

6. Run of major championship courses: This year’s run of Augusta National, Southern Hills, Brookline and the Old Course at St. Andrews sets up to be the best four-course stretch I’ve ever covered. I was stunned at how interesting The Country Club unfolded and how well a 7,200-yard course stood up to the best players on the planet.

“I think it just goes to show that a golf course doesn’t need to be overly long to play tough,” said McIlroy after his T5 finish. “This thing’s 7,200 yards, which is pretty short by today’s standards. But just with good architecture and good setup, the winning score is going to be 6 under par, which I think is a fair reflection of how the course played all week. I thought it’s a really good track, and I’d love to see [the U.S. Open] come back here.”

7. Meaningful major golf: Amid a flurry of activity on the 72nd green Sunday, three developments stood out. The first was a bawling Billy Foster taking his first major championship on the bag of Matt Fitzpatrick, of all players. The legendary European Tour caddie also looped for Seve Ballesteros and Lee Westwood but somehow didn’t hit pay dirt until he moved to Fitzpatrick. His kiss of the flag on No. 18 won’t get the same treatment as Hideki Matsuyama’s caddie bowing to Augusta National in 2021, but it was every bit as cool.

Fitzpatrick was rendered mute throughout. I stood to the side as his family, friends and team hugged and kissed him, and the sound he made was more of a hiss than anything else. For somebody who was so collected in battle, the moment completely overwhelmed him.

Lastly, the man who seems to be carrying this entire sport stood at the edge of the green alone as he waited to hug his Ryder Cup teammate. McIlroy embraced Fitzpatrick by the back of the head and said, “I’m so happy for you.” If there’s somebody who carries more weight in golf right now than Rory, I’m not sure who it would be. That moment, like this tournament, meant more given who Rory is and the high-stakes decisions he’s dealing with right now.

9. Major weeks are so fleeting: Scheffler said something Saturday night that I thought about as I walked past the 15th green, which glowed with the pixels that made up its adjacent leaderboard, and exited Brookline 24 hours later: “Hopefully this won’t be my last U.S. Open, but, you know, you never know. Can’t take anything for granted in this life …”

Part of the allure of major championship weeks is their brevity. The NBA, NFL and MLB playoffs all last more than a month. These events, which affect so many people’s lives in unforeseen ways, are vapors — wisps in the wind. They start, and then they’re gone.

This scarcity makes them valuable and conveys an importance that money never could. It also engenders gratitude. That we get to holler about Rory’s future and the USGA’s past. That we get to partially partake in four of the greatest weeks in all of sports. That when the cold gloom of Boston gives was to the crisp night, and the old curling building and clubhouse are once again alone, nothing much matters than how we got to spend that time.

For fans and media and officials alike, we can never feel what Fitzpatrick felt when he curled the shot of his life around an island in the sand. But we can share the moment with him and often get a glimpse. This is why golf is beautiful. Never has any individual sport ever invented ever been more communal than this.

9. St. Andrews is the culmination: This has been the most shape-shifting golf year I’ve covered. Every day brings something new and seemingly more preposterous than the one before it. There are turbulent times ahead for golf — really turbulent ones if you believe every rumor at Brookline — and how they will be navigated is anyone’s guess. All of that was mostly laid to the side for four days of the U.S. Open, but it’s about to reemerge. It’s fitting, now, that the year to change all years will culminate at the place that changed all places: the Old Course at St. Andrews for the 150th Open

Sometimes the end must be reformed by the beginning. I don’t know what’s going to happen a month from now at the most anticipated major championship of the last few decades, but there’s a sense beneath the surface where history is almost unwittingly molded that this summer will be remembered as an industry-changing season for this sport.

There’s only place that should happen, and it’s the place that hosts The Open. History is written by the winners, and this year’s favorite doubles as maybe the moment’s most powerful man in golf. A win that week could swing the future of this sport.

Rory by five.

I can’t ever quit.

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