BROOKLINE, Mass. — Matt Fitzpatrick looked like he had no chance.
He’d just hit a towering hook off the 18th tee that cratered into the massive bunker left of the fairway, and the prognosis was grim. Directly in between his ball and the flagstick was a grassy knob jutting into the sand. The chances of a makeable birdie look — let alone hitting the green — were next to none.
“What a huge mistake,” NBC analyst Paul Azinger said on the broadcast. “You’ve got miles to the right. You can hit it in the corporate tents and get a free drop. Now he’s at the mercy of the lie.”
Fitzpatrick’s six-under total was good enough for a one-shot advantage, but with ball-striking aficionado Will Zalatoris safely in the fairway staring down a simple approach shot, that lead was anything but safe. Zalatoris squandered an opportunity to pull even at the short 17th, but expecting him to miss out on another golden opportunity was foolish.
The calculus for Fitzpatrick was simple: find a way — any way — to make par, and force Zalatoris to birdie the finisher. Easier said than done considering the spot where Fitzpatrick found his ball in the bunker.
When Zalatoris walked past Fitzpatrick’s ball on the way to his own, he had one thought.
“I thought that going for it was going to be ballsy,” Zalatoris said.
Laying up and trying to get up-and-down was the safe play — the only sensible play, really. Twenty-four hours prior, Jon Rahm found himself in a similar predicament on 18. He tried the hero shot, failed, and carded a back-breaking double bogey to fall out of the lead. Would Fitzpatrick risk the same fate?
If the level of difficulty on the shot wasn’t already high, Fitzpatrick’s struggles from fairway bunkers made it an even bigger challenge. The Englishman has struggled from the sand all year, and the last place he wanted to find himself protecting a one-shot lead was in a bunker.
Fitzpatrick conferred with his looper, veteran caddie Billy Foster, and concocted a plan. He’d aim well left of the knob in front of him, open up the clubface and carve a cut into the 18th green.
“One good thing is the way the lie was is it forced me not to go towards the pin,” Fitzpatrick said. “It kind of forced me to go well left.”
Fitzpatrick worked quickly once he settled on a plan. He pulled a mid iron from his bag, choked up on the grip and stepped into his stance. He rehearsed his takeaway, peeked at the flagstick one final time and then looked down at the ball.
What happened next will be replayed for years to come.
Fitzpatrick made a wicked lash, making ball-first contact as sand exploded around him at impact. His ball whizzed into the darkening New England sky as it made a gentle left-to-right turn.
The gallery surrounding the 18th green murmured as the ball began its descent. Is that enough? Is it gonna get over the bunker? They exploded when it bounced on the green.
“What a pressure shot!” Azinger said.
Fitzpatrick shared a quick high five with his caddie and then grabbed his putter from his bag. He’d set himself up with a putt to win the U.S. Open.
“That golf shot was 1 in 20, at best,” Zalatoris said. “To pull it off in that situation is incredible.”
Added Fitzpatrick: “It’s one of the best shots I ever hit, there’s no doubt about it.”
Zalatoris didn’t go down easy, though. He towered a short iron over the top of the flagstick and gave himself a 20-footer for birdie that, after Fitzpatrick missed, gave him an opportunity to send the tournament to extra holes.
It just wasn’t meant to be. Zalatoris’ putt stayed left of the hole, coming inches from catching the cup, and gave him yet another major-championship heartbreak.
“Matt’s shot on 18 is going to be shown probably for the rest of U.S. Open history,” he said. “The fact that he pulled it off and even had a birdie look was just incredible.”
Great champions are defined by great moments, and Fitzpatrick’s shot certainly fit the bill.