Will Zalatoris entered Moving Day under the radar. He finished it tied for the U.S. Open lead
BROOKLINE, Mass. — Will Zalatoris peered down the long corridor of fans in front of him and assessed his options.
For 17 holes he’d play just about perfect golf. While the field worked backwards for much of Saturday, he’d steadily worked his way up the leaderboard. And when he stepped to the 18th tee, his name alone adorned the top spot.
But his tee ball at the par-4 finisher got away from him, slicing right and clanging off the grandstand between the 18th fairway and 15th green. When Zalatoris arrived on scene, a mass of fans crowded around his Titleist sitting on the dead patch of grass. He had eyes on the flagstick some 200 yards in the distance, but he needed a little more room to work.
“Everyone from that cameraman over needs to move back!” he commanded.
The fans obliged, and his corridor widened.
“What’s our number?” Zalatoris asked his caddie, Ryan Goble.
“207 to cover,” he answered.
Zalatoris worked quickly after that. He received relief after a cable cover interfered with his stance, then selected a club. Moments later, his ball whizzed down the hallway of fans and elevated into the sky. The masses swarmed both player and caddie on their walk back to safety inside the ropes.
Crisis averted. What looked like bogey (or worse) when Zalatoris left the tee turned into the latest in a series of clutch saves on Moving Day at the U.S. Open. It was the type of round that wins major championships, and one that — should Zalatoris win — will be looked back on as the catalyst in the fulfillment of a life dream.
Zalatoris arrived to the course on Saturday far earlier than the other weekend contenders. His one-under total through 36 holes was good for a share of 16th place, and as a result, his tee time was two hours before those at the top of the leaderboard.
That’s not to say the 25-year-old wasn’t a threat to become a serious contender, though. His major championship record shows as much. He’s finished in the top 10 five times over the past three years, has missed just one cut, and secured a runner-up finish at the PGA just a month ago. When the lights shine brightest, Zalatoris seems to elevate his game.
Despite his sparkling record, Zalatoris garnered suspiciously little ink in the press over the opening 36 holes. Much of the talk surrounded the top-ranked players or the host of underdogs fighting to become the next long-shot champion. The slender kid from California — who ranked somewhere in between the two — was largely ignored.
It didn’t take long for Zalatoris to insert himself into the conversation on Moving Day, though.
With the other contenders just arriving to the property, Zalatoris started making his move. He birdied the difficult par-3 2nd and then poured in another at the 4th. A bogey at the 7th slowed his progress, but he bounced back with a birdie at the 9th to make the turn in two under. By the time the final group teed off, he was just two shots back.
“I knew if I make an early bogey or two, don’t change the game plan,” Zalatoris said. “Don’t try to get extra aggressive, because that’s how you make a mess of it.”
Zalatoris didn’t change his game plan on the back nine, but the waters were still choppy. As he made the turn at The Country Club, the weather made a turn, too. The breeze picked up and the temperatures dropped. Bogeys lurked on every hole. Still, Zalatoris would not budge.
Three times between the 10th and the 12th, Zalatoris missed the green with his approach. Three times he saved par. His trusty 60-degree wedge is stamped in pink lettering with the phrase “Sweet N Low.” On Saturday, he was both.
“Take the pars, [and] move on,” he said. “Knock some holes off the board.”
At the U.S. Open, that’s a recipe for success. And it’s one that steadily moved Zalatoris up the board on Saturday. There may not have been any of the patented major-championship roars for him in Round 3, but there were very few groans as well. Par is a great score in this championship, and Zalatoris continued to rack them up.
After the shaky three-hole stretch to open the back nine, Zalatoris took control of the round with elite ball-striking. He hit the fairway. He hit the green. He rolled up his birdie putt to tap-in range and he moved to the next.
“I keep giving myself as many 25- to 35-footers that I can out here,” he said. “Just keep getting the ball just around the hole.”
Zalatoris added one last birdie — at No. 15 — to close out his round, and he escaped a beastly Country Club setup with just one dropped shot on the day. Even his errant drive at the 18th didn’t cost him. He saved par from the front bunker to close out his round, and then retreated into the clubhouse to sign his card
“I felt like I shot a 61,” Zalatoris said.
The scorecard only read 67 — the low round of the day — but it was enough to vault him into a tie for the lead heading into Sunday.
Zalatoris entered the interview area and looked out at the gaggle of reporters assembled in front of him. He’d survived the haymaker The Country Club threw at him on a chilly Moving Day, and he’d done it better than anyone else.
“Yeah, that was brutal,” he said. “I think it took a lot of discipline today.”
He looked relieved to be off the course, and happy with the results of his meticulous process. But still, he knew the task at hand.
“There’s a ton of major champions on this leaderboard, and by no means is the job done,” he said. “Not even close.”
He answered questions for just under 10 minutes, and when his media duties were complete, he exited the media tent destined for his next obligation. But before he could get too far away, he answered one last question: When did he first dream of winning a U.S. Open?
“Probably when I was about 6 years old at the Cal Club, seeing Ken Venturi’s trophy there every day,” he said.
Venturi is the pride of the Cal Club, nestled in the hills of San Francisco, but should Zalatoris put together another round like the one he produced on Moving Day, he will have some company.
The result on Sunday remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Zalatoris won’t be entering Sunday under the radar. Not even close.