Tuesday, September 27, 2022

2022 St. Jude Championship: How Will Zalatoris edged Sepp Straka in the most dramatic playoff of the season

For four days, the FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind in Memphis unfolded as a solid, if not unremarkable, first event of the 2022 FedEx Cup Playoffs. A handful of stars were involved and the leader heading into Sunday, J.J. Spaun, was eventually ejected from the top of the leaderboard after posting an 8-over par. Ultimately, it looked as if a worthy winner would eventually emerge. A solid golf tournament, but nothing extraordinarily compelling to be found.

Then, out of nowhere, it gave us the craziest hour of the 2022 season. 

It all started when eventual winner Will Zalatoris hit a 10-foot par putt on the 72nd hole, turned to face either his caddie or the crowd and screamed — and I mean screamed — “What are they going to say now?!” It was an emotional response to the idea that Zalatoris, if he could putt at all, would have already notched multiple PGA Tour wins instead of still searching for his first. That’s not an idea held by anyone who follows closely, but I’m sure Zalatoris gets it in his ear more often than he should.

Straka matched him with a par on his 72nd hole, and the duo headed back to the 18th tee tied at 15 under looking to settle the $2.7 million first prize and 2,000 FedEx Cup points. The first playoff hole was fairly standard other than Straka having to hit a 6-foot comebacker for par to keep his hopes alive.

It is remarkable that Straka was in the mix to begin with. He came into the tournament having missed six straight cuts and shot twice as many rounds in the 60s this week (four) as he did on the PGA Tour in May, June and July combined. Then, he stepped up and shot a 32 on the back nine without even blinking and went toe to toe with one of the 15 best players in the world — who, by the way, also nearly won two major championships earlier this year.

The second playoff hole is when the tournament took a left turn into the “Do Not Enter” zone and, buddy, there’s a reason they put those warning signs up. Zalatoris blew his tee shot off the planet and nearly out of bounds. He had to try to hit a running cut around a tree to reach the green with a temporary nylon fence obstructing his backswing. He didn’t ask for relief, nor was it offered. Instead, he pitched out and left himself 98 yards for birdie.

Straka had problems of his own. After trying to cut the corner off the water for the second consecutive hole, his ball took a dangerous bounce and was so close to the liquid that he briefly took off a shoe to see if he could stand in the water and hit his second shot. Nothing gets golf crowds cranked up quite like a brawny man in a polo removing his socks and shoes. In the end, wisdom won out. He took an unplayable and hit his approach to 7 feet.

Broadcaster Paul Azinger highlighted a tale as old as time when watching Straka’s approach: “The twirl tells the story.”

Zalatoris made the 14-footer for par (no notes on what folks were to say about him this time), and Straka covered up his par with one of his own from 7 feet. All of this, by the way, was simply an appetizer compared to what happened at the third and final playoff hole.

Hitting first, just as he had on the first two playoff holes, Zalatoris took his tee shot on the 151-yard par-3 hole way out to the right. So far, in fact, that it rolled onto the rock wall surrounding the green, took five bounces, somehow didn’t fall into the water, and instead nestled up in the space between the rock and the turf. Effectively, it was buried.

Knowing all of this, Straka hit his shot in the same direction but didn’t quite get the bounces Zalatoris got. His ball eventually landed at the bottom of the pond, and he was hitting his third from the drop zone. After flying one in the bunker from there, he hit out of the sand to 4 feet, which he had for double bogey.

Incredibly, Straka was hitting 5 while Zalatoris was still lying 1. That’s because Zalatoris was busy examining whether he should try and get a wedge on his ball that was jammed between a literal rock and a hard place. It would have been a heroic effort, and if he’d gotten it anywhere on the green, he would have had two putts for the win. In an hour of “completely and totally normal sport” moments, it was certainly the zenith.

Again, common sense prevailed, and Zalatoris went back to the drop zone where he hit his approach to 7 feet. After making just four putts of 7 feet or longer in his first 35 holes on the weekend at TPC Southwind, he hit his third in his last four holes to end perhaps the most bizarre playoff of the year and secure his first PGA Tour victory.

“It was pretty crazy,” said Straka. “This course is where every shot you hit you’re on the edge of your seat. Add the nerves of competing for a tournament to that, especially for a playoff event and, yeah, it can get a little crazy.”

The punch line is that no sport engenders more bizarre moments — like grown men removing their shoes and then putting them back on without actually performing an action between those two, or one of the 10 best players in the world staring at the agronomy work of a Memphis grounds crew for minutes at a time, trying to determine whether a slice of metal could be slide between a white ball and a thick rock — than golf.

The “normal sport” thing is certainly a bit, but it is also true, and the game itself keeps proving it to us. But the bit is not the point, and all of these “very normal sport” moments are simply a Trojan Horse for the actual story that matters: Zalatoris grabbing the first win of what could be a mega career. While there are a million ways that win could have happened — and nearly did happen over the last two years — it delighted me that the way it actually happened was, in fact, the least normal way it possibly could have.

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