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Will Zalatoris’ wild ride to FedEx St. Jude Championship title

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Will Zalatoris’ wild ride to FedEx St. Jude Championship title

Converted on three must-make putts to beat Sepp Straka in playoff

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    Will Zalatoris' Round 4 highlights from FedEx St. Jude

    GERMANTOWN, Tenn. – It’s a universal truth that the more you struggle with something, the more whoever holds the cosmic marionette strings upstairs will keep presenting it to you.

    This explains the timeless appeal of “Groundhog Day” and it explains how Will Zalatoris won the FedEx St. Jude Championship with a clutch 7-foot putt to save bogey on the third hole of a playoff against Sepp Straka at TPC Southwind on Sunday.

    It was the first PGA TOUR victory for Zalatoris, who moves to No. 1 in the FedExCup.

    “Yeah, it's kind of hard to say ‘about time’ when it's your second year on TOUR, but about time,” said Zalatoris, who lost playoffs at the Farmers Insurance Open and PGA Championship this season, was T2 at the U.S. Open, and was the highest-ranked player without a TOUR win on his resume.

    There was a shot Zalatoris kept struggling with – the do-or-die putt from 5 to 15 feet with everything on the line – and the golf gods kept giving it to him. This season. Last season. Majors. Non-majors. But on Sunday he tamed his bugaboo not once, not twice, but three times.

    He saved par from 10 feet on the 72nd hole of regulation to make the playoff, and from 13 1/2 feet on a similar line on the second playoff hole (also 18). Then, after a fraught decision to take an unplayable at the par-3 11th hole – his tee shot had nestled up against a rock wall – he went back to the drop area, pitched to 7 feet, and converted yet again to end it.

    His eyes welled with tears, and he struggled to speak. All those times when he had congratulated someone else – eight top-10s this season, three runner-up finishes – it had all led to this.

    “I’m just so proud of him,” said Josh Gregory, his instructor, who was also in tears. “He gets scrutinized for his putting pretty badly and he’s a damn good putter. You can’t play as good as he does and not be a good putter, and to make those down the stretch was pretty awesome.

    “I think it’s a sign of good things to come,” he added. “Hopefully the floodgates will open now.”

    Zalatoris came into the week at 120th in Strokes Gained: Putting, but that was nothing new. He has always struggled on the greens. He was an elite junior, but his putting challenges scared off college coaches. He wound up at Wake Forest, where the coach, Jerry Haas, had played through putting struggles of his own during his pro career.

    As a TOUR pro, it wasn’t long before Zalatoris was using a modified claw grip and working with Gregory to identify how he could improve on the greens. One change was a sort of point-and-shoot approach that stripped away any dawdling from his pre-shot routine.

    “Yeah, I've tried to get a little bit quicker,” Zalatoris said. “Whenever I've struggled, I've been slow. I do everything – 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.”

    What happened on the last hole of regulation, Zalatoris rolling in a curling, left-to-right par putt of 10 feet that he knew he had to have – well, let’s just say “Zally” had heard the talk about his putting. He pumped his fist and hollered, “What are they gonna say now?!” It was a nod to Stephen Curry, who said the same thing after the Golden State Warriors won the most recent NBA title.

    “I did say that,” Zalatoris, who grew up in the Bay Area before moving to Dallas, said sheepishly. “Yeah, you know, I'm a big Warriors fan and obviously Steph, he's a Cal Club guy, he's a pretty big inspiration obviously. I follow the Warriors like crazy and when he said that, it kind of related to kind of my journey so far.

    “So being that close and then kind of being written off here and there and then obviously finally pulling off, it was – I actually can't believe I said that actually.”

    Zalatoris was always going to have to own the moment with the putter to win. What was surprising, though, was how much he played against type in the final round. Haas recruited him to Wake Forest because he is a tee-to-green dynamo, but in the final round at TPC Southwind, Zalatoris hit just 5 of 14 fairways. The three times he played the 18th hole – once in regulation, twice in the playoff – he saved par from a fairway bunker, the rough, and deep in the trees.

    He won despite struggling to an opening-round 71 – he overcame it with rounds of 63-65-66 – and despite having never before worked with his caddie, TOUR veteran Joel Stock.

    Zalatoris was just two rounds into the Wyndham Championship, the final week of the regular season, when he parted with caddie Ryan Goble, explaining that he didn’t want their travails on the course to impact their friendship. Goble, Zalatoris said, would remain a brother for life.

    That said, the mid-tournament decision left one of the hottest young American players suddenly without a caddie, and Zalatoris, 25, leaned on his coach, Gregory, to carry the bag on the weekend at Sedgefield Country Club. Zalatoris finished T21, and now needed to make a decision on a more permanent caddie. Gregory said he heard from “about 50 guys who wanted the job.”

    One name kept coming up: Stock.

    “We tried to communicate as much as we possibly could Monday through Wednesday to make this adjustment as easy as possible,” Zalatoris said, “but you never know what it's going to be like until you're in the heat of the moment. Joel was really playing more sports psychologist today. He was awesome. He was ripping dad jokes the entire day to try to keep it loose, and they're terrible but it gave us some pretty good laughs and kept it light.

    “When the moment needed to be serious,” he added, “he told me to focus on my breathing. … He did an amazing job.”

    Stock didn’t read any putts for Zalatoris during his first-round 71. They switched it up in the second round, Zalatoris calling in his new bag man for reads as he made nearly 105 feet of putts and ranked second in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. (He was 25th for the week.) They did the same for the third and fourth rounds, too, and the playoff. You could say it worked out.

    “There was a learning curve,” Stock said. “Obviously learning numbers, but he’s very capable of doing yardages on his own. It was more about talking through .. each shot, where to land it, and he can kind of react from there. Everything felt very smooth. His work ethic, his team, the way they brought me in, it felt seamless.”

    Stock, who was trained by his teammate at Oregon, Ben Crane, who went on to win five times on TOUR. They formed a meticulous duo, with Stock becoming known for keeping track of such ephemera as which way the grain is growing on the run-ups to every green.

    Zalatoris, too, is detail oriented. With each close call, with each sit-down with his team to see where he could have done better, he kept coming back to the putting. He needed to find a way to make from close range when he absolutely had to have it, and when he did, after he’d paid homage to Curry, he did it again, and yet a third time.

    Perhaps the floodgates will open. Zalatoris is still just 25. Perhaps he will zealously protect his lead at this week’s BMW Championship, and win the TOUR Championship, too, becoming the first to win PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year and the FedExCup in consecutive seasons.

    But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Zalatoris won. That’s the important thing. It’s about time.

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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