BROOKLINE, Mass. (AP)A playoff was looming Sunday in the U.S. Open, just like it always does at The Country Club, when Matt Fitzpatrick sized up his shot from a bunker left of the 18th fairway.
He had a one-shot lead over Will Zalatoris and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. He had a big patch of rough-filled turf in front of him, along with a gaping bunker protecting the green and a flag 156 yards away. Nothing less than a U.S. Open title was on the line.
On a back nine filled with clutch moments, Fitzpatrick delivered the biggest of them all.
”One of the best shots I ever hit,” he said.
Fitzpatrick hit 9-iron that started around the steep lip – a ”squeezy fade,” he called it – carried the front bunker and settled 18 feet away, setting up a par for a 2-under 68 that made the Englishman a major champion for his first professional win in America.
He won the U.S. Amateur at Brookline in 2013, making him only the second man to win a U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open on the same course. Jack Nicklaus, the name on the gold winner’s medal draped around his neck, turned the trick at Pebble Beach. Juli Inkster won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open at Prairie Dunes.
”The feeling’s out of this world,” Fitzpatrick said. ”It is so cliche, but it’s stuff you dream of as a kid. Yeah, to achieve it, I can retire a happy man tomorrow.”
Zalatoris, with remarkable resiliency during a tense battle at Brookline, had a 15-foot birdie to force a playoff. He dropped to his knees when the putt slid by the left edge of the cup. He shot 69 and was runner-up for the third time in the last seven majors.
Zalatoris and Scheffler, who earlier had a longer birdie putt to catch up to Fitzpatrick, did all they could. Fitzpatrick was convinced his time was coming, and he grabbed it.
”Matt’s shot on 18 is going to be shown probably for the rest of U.S. Open history,” Zalatoris said. ”I walked by it, and I thought that going for it was going to be ballsy. But the fact that he pulled it off and even had a birdie look was just incredible.
”So hat’s off to him. He played great all week obviously and gave a solid round today.”
The celebration felt familiar. Fitzpatrick shared tearful hugs with his parents and his younger brother, Alex, who caddied for him in the Amateur. He stayed with the same family.
The payoff was $3.15 million and a title – major champion – that money can’t buy.
One of the first phone calls came from Nicklaus, the four-time U.S. Open champion. Turns out Fitzpatrick won the member-member at The Bear’s Club – the course Nicklaus built in south Florida – and what the Golden Bear said that day was not forgotten.
”He gave me a bit of abuse at the start of the year. He said, `Finally. Congratulations for winning in the States,”’ Fitzpatrick said. And then slightly lifting the trophy, Fitzpatrick sent a fun message to Nicklaus: ”Jack, I won a second time.”
It took a good break, a signature shot and some guts at the end.
Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris were tied going to the 15th when the Englishman hit his tee shot so far right that it went into the gallery and found a decent lie on grass that was dead and trampled. Zalatoris missed by only a few yards and was buried in deep grass.
”I feel like all year we’ve just had moments where I’ve just not caught a break, just not had a lie, just not had a bounce. This time I get there, and the ball’s sitting perfectly,” Fitzpatrick said. ”It was one of the best shots I hit all day.”
He blistered a 5-iron from 220 yards to 18 feet below the hole. Zalatoris went into the front bunker, blasted out to 25 feet and made bogey. Fitzpatrick took a two-shot lead when his birdie putt went into the cup with such perfect pace it didn’t even touch the pin he leaves in the cup.
”To do that and take advantage of the break I had was fantastic,” Fitzpatrick said.
Zalatoris again bounced back, taking on a tough pin at the par-3 16th to 7 feet for birdie to cut the lead to one shot. Both missed 12-foot birdie chances on the 17th, and then Fitzpatrick missed a fairway at the wrong time. It looked like a playoff was eminent – the previous three U.S. Opens at Brookline were all decided by a playoff – until the shot of his life.
Fitzpatrick finished at 6-under 274. He became the first Englishman since Justin Rose in 2013 to win the U.S. Open, and he felt his time was coming.
He is meticulous in charting his shots and keeps a record of all of them to identify what needs work. And he emphasized speed in his swing over the last two years, giving him the length and the belief to compete with anyone.
That didn’t make Sunday any easier, a three-man race from the start when Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy fell back and never rejoined the mix.
Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris, who shared the 54-hole lead, each had a two-shot lead at one point.
Zalatoris, who lost in a playoff to Justin Thomas in the PGA Championship last month, recovered from two early bogeys. They were tied when Zalatoris made an 18-foot birdie putt on the short par-3 11th, and Fitzpatrick three-putted for bogey from the same range.
The 25-year-old from Dallas suddenly had a two-shot lead. He also couldn’t keep the ball in the fairway, and it cost him with a dropped shot on No. 12. And then came another big turning point, with Fitzpatrick holing a 50-foot birdie putt across the 13th green. Zalatoris did well to make his 15-footer for par and they headed for the tense conclusion.
Hideki Matsuyama had the low round of the week at 65, but he finished at 3-under 277, and that was never going to be good enough. McIlroy had a 69 and finished in the group four shots behind with Collin Morikawa (66).
Fitzpatrick couldn’t stop smiling as he carried off the silver trophy, big and silver and shiny like the U.S. Amateur prize, only far more meaningful. And there was another poignant moment at the end. His caddie, Billy Foster, one of the longest-serving and most popular loopers in Europe, removed the flag from the 18th pin. That’s his trophy.
”Billy said it for a while to keep doing what you’re doing and the chance will come,” Fitzpatrick said. ”It did, and I took it.”
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