Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
BROOKLINE, MA. The U.S. Open is the most intense journey any golfer will endure. The gap between success and failure is no wider than the ledge a man must balance himself on or else risk falling into oblivion. The twin aspects of patience and consistency are front and center.
In preparing to return to competition after suffering a serious car accident, Tiger Woods was emphatic in stating that failure to be totally prepared in returning to competition can mean being "exposed."
That exposure was evident during Saturday's third round at The Country Club.
Players faced a trying exercise from the very start. No golfer was immune to the below-average June temperatures and the constant swirling wind velocities that quickly accentuated the slightest mis-hits and mis-judgements.
Going into the third round -- 23 players were in the red figures. When play concluded only nine men remained under-par for 54 holes. The Country Club was not taking prisoners but metaphorically executing them.
Second round leader Collin Morikawa was the poster child front and center in showing the demands faced. The two-time major winner limped home with a 77 -- his highest score in any major he's played.
But there is a flipside and Will Zalatoris was equal to the task.
He played a very calculated round with a score of 67 -- the day's low. The three-under-par round was completed with a stirring par save at the 18th when his par putt from 20-feet found the bottom of the hole. Keep in mind, it was the 18th that inflicted serious damage to another competitor in Jon Rahm. The Spaniard had the lead by one stroke when he stood on the tee. When he left the green he ended his day with a double-bogey and now sits one shot behind.
Will's gutsy finish pushed him to the top of the leaderboard with Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick -- no stranger to The Country Club given his U.S. Amateur win here nine years ago. The two concluded play with a 206 total -- four-under-par.
For Zalatoris having a final round lead in a major is another box for him to check off his growing list of accomplishments. One he hopes to go beyond by claiming his first professional win and major championship.
Zalatoris is the poster child for the new generation of players now making its mark in championship golf. Confident -- yes. Cocky to the point of arrogance -- no. The 25-year-old showed early promise with a tie for 6th at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The following spring at the Masters it was Zalatoris who finished solo second to winner Hideki Matsuyama.
This past May he was front and center at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills before losing in a playoff to winner Justin Thomas. Return visits to the top of any leaderboard -- especially in majors happens for one reason -- talent.
The Wake Forest collegian is attempting to duplicate what another alum named Curtis Strange did 34 years ago in winning the championship of American golf at The Country Club.
At the end of 2021 he was ranked 34th -- he's now 14th. In just 50 starts on the PGA Tour he has finished in the top ten 15 times. The Plano, TX resident was candid in outlining his thought process during the trying conditions Saturday.
"Yeah, that was brutal. When I made a mistake, I made sure I was on the fat side of the green or having room where I could maybe at least chip one up there to 8, 10 feet. I think it took a lot of discipline today. I mean, we didn't aim at a single flag even with some wedges just because you really only have a foot or two to deal with on these greens in some situations."
The need for patience and the wherewithal to grind out scores is a central aspect in any U.S. Open and The Country Club bared serious teeth throughout the day's play.
Zalatoris acknowledged the realities of the moment -- understanding that nothing is assured with one critical round to play.
"This place is a beast. When I played during the Am in 2013, I said this was the hardest golf course that I had ever played. It's just so easy to compound mistakes out here, which, of course, you can do that in major championships in general, but especially this one.
"I think the biggest thing for me tomorrow, obviously, there's a ton of major champions on this leaderboard, and by no means is the job done. Not even close. But just keep doing what I'm doing. Make sure I just get myself on the green as fast as I can or at least minimize the mistakes."
Zalatoris did not make the 2021 USA Ryder Cup team but in all probability, he will be a fixture for years to come.
Being in the middle of the action in key events has boosted his own belief that his constant knocking on the door will result in a big-time break through.
"I think especially coming off the PGA it gave me a lot of belief and confidence that I belong in this situation. There's a difference in thinking it and then actually being in the situation and believing it. So, I think that's probably the biggest change. I've put myself in this situation a few times in my career, and obviously have to go out and get it tomorrow."
Patience and understanding the nature of how demanding the conditions were always uppermost on his mind.
"I just kept doing what I was doing all day. I didn't have a plan of firing at pins or being aggressive. I knew it was going to play hard and just needed to stay patient. I knew if I make an early bogey or two, don't change the game plan, don't try to get extra aggressive because that's how you make a mess of it. So, obviously, pretty pleased to be moving up the board on moving day, but just kind of one of those days where the process added up to a good result."
Being able to stay in the moment -- not wandering ahead or allowing past outcomes to linger is the key attribute elite golfers have to show. The U.S. Open can be a raw experience -- exposing to the core the resiliency of players. Saturday's third round was akin to a hurricane situation -- only the strongest foundations would survive.
The consistency and poise shown in the majors is quite an eye-opener. He has played in eight such events -- and been in the top ten five times.
Luck is doing something one time and not being able to replicate it. Zalatoris has clearly demonstrated the wherewithal to keep putting himself front and center.
His formative days in golf started in the San Francisco Bay area and the comparability to weather situations there and what it was like during Saturday' third round proved helpful.
"This is a pretty South San Francisco day, for sure. Hitting 8-irons from 145 yards when for me I hit them about 175. Just the heavy air, putting on poa annua. That's how I learned the game, and that's how it really started for me." Zalatoris has the very real possibility of joining another Bay area star named Ken Venturi who claimed the 1964 U.S. Open title.
Zalatoris was in the mix at Winged Foot in 2020 but just two years later and he now can accelerate his career dramatically. He is confident of his abilities but ever quick to realize that so much can and will happen with the final 18 holes.
The wait to his tee time in the final pairing will be another defining moment for him.
"Yeah, I've had a few long waits so far in my career. Obviously, it looks like I'll at least be around the final group, if not in the final group. I'll make sure I try to stay up a little bit tonight and make sure I sleep in just to kill some time.
"You know, I think the fact that this place is that brutal and there's that many major champions that are around the leaderboard, you know -- I think I'm in a tie for the lead right now. I don't feel like I'm holding a lead and trying to protect it by any means.
"You can't play defensive on this golf course. You almost have to play aggressively defensive. You've got to be hitting a lot of shots towards the middle of the greens. There's still no cakewalks. 9-, 8-, 7-irons into this place, you can make a mess real fast. I'll make sure that I try to sleep in a little bit and just kind of stick to the routine and go play some twilight golf."
Professional golf at the elite level is littered with talented players. Zalatoris has clearly shown such talent but becoming a major championship winner is for those who can steer themselves through all the way to victory.
Zalatoris returns to the cauldron Sunday, the stake certainly clear.
We shall see if the adage -- if there's a will --- there's a way proves true.