Take a moment to look at the width of your thumbnail. That’s the distance between salvation and damnation for Will Zalatoris.
Less than an inch. That’s all it would have taken for Zalatoris’ final putt to drop into the cup on the 18th green at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. That’s all it would have taken to propel Zalatoris into a playoff at the U.S. Open, his second in the last two majors. That’s all he needed to hang on just a little bit longer in his agonizing pursuit of his first major.
Instead, Zalatoris’ ball rolled 14 feet and skirted just past the left edge of the cup, close enough to peer down into its depths and decide, nah, not today.
As the ball trundled past, Zalatoris’ slim frame folded in on itself like a tent collapsing in a high wind. Beside him, yet another player — in this case, Matt Fitzpatrick — celebrated a major that, with an extra inch or two here or there, could have belonged to Zalatoris.
In the last seven majors he’s completed, Zalatoris has missed the cut in one. The other six have gone like this: T6, 2, T8, T6, 2, T2. That’s something beyond close-but-no-cigar, always-a-bridesmaid territory. That’s verging on some kind of awful, tantalizing curse.
“To have three runner-ups so far in my career in majors … I'd pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half,” he said in the minutes after his loss, still looking dazed. “I'd probably be a three-time major champion at this point.”
Zalatoris is 25 years old — older than the age Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy won their first majors, but still very young in golf terms. Brooks Koepka was 28 when he won his first major. Dustin Johnson was 31. And Zalatoris can play in nearly 50 more majors until he’s 37, the age when Sergio Garcia won his first.
He’s not the first player to hammer away at the door before kicking it down. Jason Day had nine top-10 finishes before finally winning the 2015 PGA Championship. Henrik Stenson had nine top-10s before winning the 2016 Open Championship. Phil Mickelson had an astounding 17 top 10s before winning the 2004 Masters. Zalatoris now holds the dubious honor of Best Player Never To Win A Major, but more than a couple to have held that title – Mickelson, Johnson – have thrown it off with a flourish.
“I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing,” Zalatoris said. “I'm not afraid to be in the lead. I've got nothing to lose out here. So let's just keep doing what we're doing and eventually we're going to get one.”
That’s the nice way this could go. But there’s another way.
Stars in team sports without a ring — Charles Barkley, Dan Marino, Patrick Ewing — have something of a lovable-loser quality to them. It’s possible to be an elite player in a team sport without a championship.
Golf, though — there’s a hard-and-fast line between the great and the very good. Fitzpatrick crossed it on Sunday. Zalatoris hasn’t. And the history of golf is littered with if-onlys.
Colin Montgomerie had 10 top-10 finishes in majors — including a Zalatoris-esque two solo 2nds and a T2 — without a win. Lee Westwood (19 top 10s, 0 wins) was the last man out in three of the great majors of the 21st century: Tiger Woods’ victory over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open, Stewart Cink’s win over Tom Watson in the 2009 Open Championship, and Mickelson’s 2010 Masters. Rickie Fowler (12 Top 10s, 0 wins) finished in the top 5 of all four majors in 2014 but didn’t win a single one.
Each one of them surely thought the major victory would happen one day — it had to, right? — but that day never came.
If there’s any saving grace to Zalatoris’ many near-misses, it’s this: the scar tissue is now so thick that a drill couldn’t pierce it. There’s no need to fear the worst thing that could happen at a major when the worst thing has already happened to you.
“The comfort level being in these situations is just going to get better and better,” he said. “It's like I've got nothing to lose. It either goes in or it doesn't.”
No matter how the next few majors, or years, or decades go, there’s this: by the way he’s handled himself thus far, Zalatoris is going to be a gallery favorite at every major he enters. The pro-Willy Z contingent at Brookline cheered him at the first tee shot and consoled him after the final putt. Should he get that first major, whether it’s next month at St. Andrews or years from now, it will be one of the most popular victories in recent golf history.
Zalatoris will deserve every bit of the acclaim on that day, since he’s had to go through hell to get it.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.