Golf

What’s to come in the FedEx Cup playoffs after a long-awaited win for Will Zalatoris

  • Senior college football writer
  • Author of seven books on college football
  • Graduate of the University of Georgia

Remember when it seemed like Scottie Scheffler would never win on the PGA Tour?

In each of his first two seasons on tour, Scheffler looked like one of the most talented players in the world, grinding out top 25 after top 25, with 29 of those finishes all in his first 52 starts. No matter how hard Scheffler tried, however, he couldn’t pick up his first victory.

Finally, Scheffler won for the first time on the PGA Tour at the WM Phoenix Open in February. He won three more times in his next five starts, including his first major championship at the Masters. Now, Scheffler is ranked the No. 1 player in the world and is the favorite to be voted PGA Tour Player of the Year by his peers.

Golf fans have to wonder whether Will Zalatoris’ first victory on Sunday at the FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee, will have a similar effect. He outlasted Sepp Straka in a three-hole playoff to move to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings heading into the second leg of the playoffs at this week’s BMW Championship at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware.

Zalatoris, a longtime friend of Scheffler, had been painfully close so many times in his first two seasons on tour, including three runner-up finishes at majors. Just seven months after Zalatoris was promoted from the Korn Ferry Tour, he finished second to Hideki Matsuyama at the 2021 Masters.

In late January, Zalatoris lost to Luke List in a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Then he fell to Justin Thomas in a three-hole aggregate playoff at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills. In the next major, the U.S. Open, Zalatoris tied for second, 1 shot behind winner Matt Fitzpatrick, after his 14-footer on the 72nd hole lipped out.

Zalatoris had earned $6.7 million in 22 starts before this past weekend, the most in a season by a player without a victory in PGA Tour history. At 14th in the Official World Golf Ranking, he was the highest-ranked player without a PGA Tour win.

“I mean, it’s frustrating, motivating, all those things,” Zalatoris told ESPN this week. “I’ve been close all year and I think that over the last month I’ve learned a lot about my game, and I think it’s something that going forward I’m pretty excited about.”

Zalatoris carded a 1-over 71 in the first round at TPC Southwind, after three of his shots plugged in water-soaked bunkers in a four-hole stretch. He was already 9 strokes behind co-leaders J.J. Spaun and Si Woo Kim after 18 holes. It seemed like it would be yet another week without a victory. Things looked so bleak that his fiancée, Caitlin Sellers, asked him what their weekend plans were going to be if he missed the cut.

“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” Zalatoris said after carding a 7-under 63 in the second round. “You can’t play this good that often and not get a win.”

That elusive victory came Sunday, after Zalatoris finally got some good bounces — literally — when he needed them most.

On the third playoff hole, the par-3 11th, Zalatoris thought his tee shot was dead when it started leaking right of the green. Somehow, the ball stayed dry, but not until after it bounced at least seven times on a stone wall surrounding the 11th green, which is a smaller replica of the iconic island green at TPC Sawgrass. Zalatoris’ ball came to rest between the deep rough and the stone wall. His ball was dry, but he was still in serious trouble.

All Straka needed to do was hit his tee shot to the middle of the green, and he’d probably have a good chance at an unlikely victory. His tee shot followed a nearly identical line as Zalatoris’. Straka’s ball ended up in the water. He hit his third shot into a greenside bunker and chipped out to about 4 feet for a putt for double-bogey.

After much discussion with his caddie, Joel Stock, Zalatoris wisely went back to the drop zone and hit a perfect wedge shot onto the green. He won the tournament with his first bogey on the back nine all week.

“I knew I wouldn’t have played the shot, but I at least was going to take a peek at it,” Zalatoris said. “Joel told me about three times, ‘Hey, Sepp’s got 4 feet for [a bogey], go back, go back.’ So I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t giving up an easy chance where I could just kind of maybe pop one up on the green and get an easy 2-putt and it was just not doable. I couldn’t get the club below basically half of the equator of the ball, the lower half of the ball.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that Zalatoris’ fortune changed after Stock started reading his putts in the second round on Friday. It was Stock’s first tournament on Zalatoris’ bag; he parted ways with caddie Ryan Goble midway through the Wyndham Championship. Not a bad start.

While Zalatoris has been regarded as one of the best ball-strikers in the world, his putting stroke was sometimes as smooth as a Mississippi backroad. He came into the week ranked 120th in shots gained putting (minus-.037) and had been dreadful from 4 feet to 8 feet. His putting stroke was so bad earlier this season that Collin Morikawa said he prayed for Zalatoris.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Morikawa said at the U.S. Open in June. “I’ve said it since college, anything outside of that 8- to 10-foot zone, I mean, it’s as smooth as anyone else’s stroke. We’ve seen some squirrely putts. Not that I’m the best putter and I have had that little squirreliness too, but I think we all kind of get on our toes when we see it.”

Zalatoris said he has tried to work faster on the green and not be as methodical as he was in the past.

“I’ve tried to get a little bit quicker,” he said. “Whenever I’ve struggled, I’ve been slow. I’m a fast walker, I’m obviously a fast talker, I do everything quick. But being able to just look at the target, roll the ball to there and move on, accept what happens from there.”

With short-game guru Josh Gregory’s help, Zalatoris also tweaked his putting stance and grip. He made a 10-footer on the 72nd hole of regulation. He made a 14-footer on No. 18 on the second playoff hole and a 7-footer on No. 11 for his first victory.

Zalatoris now believes he’s one of the best putters in the world. It showed on Sunday.

“I think anytime you put yourself in contention, you’re going to learn something about yourself,” Zalatoris said. “The first at the Masters [to Hideki Matsuyama in 2021] was life changing because it put me in position to play out here as much as I wanted to and put me kind of on the map. The second at the PGA was kind of affirmation that it wasn’t a fluke of a week, and the third one at the U.S. Open gave me that much more belief that I can win a major, I can win out here. It was just a matter of time and obviously this was my week.”

What’s next?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, nine of the previous 15 winners of the FedEx Cup were inside the top five in the points standings after the first playoff event, including each of the past three winners since the current format was introduced in 2019.

That means Zalatoris, Scheffler, Cameron Smith, Sam Burns and Tony Finau might have the best odds with two events left to play as the FedEx Cup Playoffs move to Wilmington, Delaware, this week. It will be the first PGA Tour event played in the state.

It will also be the first professional event at Wilmington Country Club, which sits on 100 acres that once belonged to the du Pont family. Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed the course in 1959 and Andrew Green reshaped it in 2020 after a tornado knocked down 300 trees and wiped out every bunker.

Justin Thomas, Patrick Rodgers and Daniel Berger played in the 2013 Palmer Cup on the South Course at Wilmington Country Club.

Who’s in the BMW Championship field?

Lucas Glover, who tied for third in the FedEx St. Jude Championship, was the biggest mover in the FedEx Cup standings, going from 121st to 34th. Adam Scott moved up 32 positions, from 77th to 45th, and Andrew Putnam climbed from 87th to 47th. Wyndham Clark, who was the last player in the 70-man field for the BMW Championship, rose nine spots.

“Honestly, I felt like my game is in a good enough spot that I wasn’t searching for anything this week,” said Scott, who tied for fifth in Memphis at 11 under. “It was really about putting my mind to do something and getting it done. I think that sometimes the hardest thing at this point in my career is week after week switching the mind on all the time. Floating around on autopilot sometimes and that doesn’t get you very far, so I had to focus a little bit more this week.”

Anirban Lahiri, Lee Hodges, John Huh, Brendon Todd and Gary Woodland were the last players out.

Cam Smith’s bad break

It was unfortunate for Smith that a PGA Tour rules official decided to watch a rebroadcast of the third round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship on Saturday night.

That official noticed that Smith might have hit a ball that was sitting on the red penalty-area line near the green on the par-3 fourth hole. Smith’s tee shot hit the green, but bounced into an adjoining pond. When he took a drop, at least part of his ball settled on the red line.

The rules official who watched the rebroadcast brought up his concerns to chief referee Gary Young, so they decided to address the matter with Smith. Young found the Australian player in the clubhouse around 11:20 a.m. ET on Sunday.

“I thought it was simply going to be a situation where I asked Cam the question and he was going to tell [me] that he was comfortable that his ball was outside the penalty area,” Young said. “When I asked him the question, unfortunately, he said to me, ‘No, the ball was definitely touching the line.’ So at that point there’s no turning back.”

Young said Smith didn’t understand that his ball had to be completely outside the penalty area. Smith was assessed a 2-stroke penalty, dropping him 4 shots behind leader J.J. Spaun to start his final round.

Smith birdied the first hole, but shot even 70. He finished tied for 13th at 9 under. Smith, who is reportedly headed to LIV Golf in the near future, declined to speak with reporters after his round. He would have moved to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking with a victory in Memphis.

The worst (and best) of the weekend

Rickie Fowler was the last player in the 125-man field for the FedEx St. Jude Championship. The struggling player needed to finish in at least a tie for 11th to advance to the BMW Championship.

Fowler was in decent shape after an opening-round 65. He shot 1-over 71 in the second round, but was 3 under in the third round heading into the 18th hole. Then the bottom fell out.

Fowler hit his drive and then his third shot into the water. He was short of the green with his fifth shot. He needed two more chip shots and two putts to record a quintuple-bogey 9 on the hole. It tied for the worst score on a single hole in his PGA Tour career. He ended up carding a 2-over 72.

Fowler shot 3-over 73 on Sunday and finished tied for 64th at 1 over for the tournament.

At least Fowler had a sense of humor about the debacle, even responding to Thomas’ playful dig at him on social media.

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The next 25

The 25 Korn Ferry Tour players who earned PGA Tour cards for the 2022-23 season on Sunday include some of the best collegiate players from the recent past and quite a few journeymen with incredible stories.

Carl Yuan represented China in the Tokyo Olympics last summer. Robby Shelton advanced to the 2020 BMW Championship as a rookie, but then messed with his swing and lost his card. Paul Haley II earned his first PGA Tour card a decade ago and is a former little league baseball teammate of Clayton Kershaw and Matthew Stafford.

Ben Griffin quit professional golf and worked as a mortgage loan officer just last year. Erik Barnes stocked shelves on the overnight shift at a grocery store during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The best reaction to earning a PGA Tour card might have come from Kevin Roy, who carded a 3-under 68 in Sunday’s final round of the Pinnacle Bank Championship in Elkhorn, Nebraska, to finish 24th on the list of 25.

Tyson Alexander, 34, also earned his first PGA Tour card, prompting one of his buddies to settle their longtime high school bet.

He said it

It doesn’t seem that the PGA Tour and LIV Golf will agree to coexist anytime soon. So at least one former PGA Tour member who left for the breakaway circuit is ready to see them compete against each other.

“I’m ready for the LIV golfers to go ahead and play against guys on the PGA Tour,” Patrick Reed told reporters, ahead of this past week’s International Series Singapore event on the Asian Tour, according to the Strait Times. “I’m pretty sure we can hold our own.

“To be honest with you, I’ve played on every tour — this will be my second Asian Tour event because the last Saudi event was an Asian Tour event, but I’ve played on DP World, I’ve played on PGA Tour, I’ve played one Korn Ferry Tour event, and I’ve played now two LIV golf events, and I can tell you this much: The guys that are out there, doesn’t matter what the dollar amount is — I think, to be honest with you, the players were kind of sick and tired of hearing about that.

“At the end of the day when you go out there, you’re playing more than just for yourself, that you’re part of a team, and we’re all motivated to win trophies. There’s a reason why these top players, all these great golfers are coming over, because they believe in the product, they know it’s the right thing.”

Reed finished in a tie for 31st at 8 under in the Asian Tour event.

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