TULSA, Okla. — Will Zalatoris saw nearly every inch of Southern Hills on Sunday as one of the best ball-strikers in golf struggled to harness a series of wayward shots that threatened to take him out of the running at the PGA Championship.
The rail-thin kid from Wake Forest managed to do it in time to force a playoff with Justin Thomas.
Then he missed — ever so slightly — two more shots when they mattered most.
Zalatoris and Thomas had matched birdies on the opener of their three-hole aggregate when he overcooked a fade off the tee on the 308-yard 17th and ended up right of the green. Zalatoris pitched to within 10 feet for birdie and slid the putt by to fall behind Thomas, who drove the green and two-putted.
Then, needing birdie on the brutal 490-yard 18th, Zalatoris came up short with his approach. And with Thomas in position to do no worse than par, he missed the long putt that would have pushed the playoff to sudden death.
“I’m obviously pretty close,” said Zalatoris, who has yet to win on the PGA Tour but suddenly has a penchant for playing well in majors, where he has five top-10s and a runner-up finish at the Masters in his last seven tries.
“I didn’t have my best stuff yesterday, which ultimately was kind of the difference” he said. “I battled like crazy today, especially on 6 — I caught a random gust of wind and had to save bogey off the cart path. I’m close. I’ll get there soon.”
He was magnanimous in defeat, taking off his hat and clapping as Thomas raised his arms in victory.
“This is what you live for,” Zalatoris said later, after signing his scorecard to make another runner-up finish official.
The fact that he was standing on the 18th green in a playoff was a testament to perseverance.
Zalatoris had done just about everything right during opening rounds of 66 and 65, then seemed to do nothing well during a third-round 73 that left him three strokes back of Chile’s Mito Pereira heading into the final round.
He opened with a couple of birdies at the fourth and fifth holes to apply some pressure, then came to the par-3 sixth, where that gust of Oklahoma wind sent his approach sailing into a shrub. He took a penalty drop for an unplayable lie, wound up on the paved cart path, pitched to about 8 feet and rolled in the bogey putt to stay in the game.
“That was just bizarre,” he said. “It was just a bizarre gust of wind.”
That was just the start of Zalatoris’ rollicking ride around Southern Hills:
First, he overshot the green at the eighth and was fortunate his ball hung up in the hazard rather than finishing in the creek; he got up and down from there.
He then hooked his drive on the 12th so hard it sailed over the gallery and nestled into the heavy grass near another creek; he hit sideways from there into the fairway and wound up with a bogey.
And just when he finally got his iron play under control, Zalatoris three-putted the 16th for another bogey.
Thomas was the only one making a move up the leaderboard, though, and that gave Zalatoris hope. He drove into the greenside bunker at the 17th, splashed out and made an 8-footer for birdie to reach 5 under for the championship. And with a nervy par putt at the last, he joined Thomas in the clubhouse a shot back of Pereira in the final group.
And when Pereira hit into the water on 18 and made double bogey, Zalatoris found himself in a playoff at a major.
“We’ve only got four a year, and I think it’s been a dream of mine to win a major since I was a little kid,” said Zalatoris, who grew up playing at California Golf Club, where there are shrines to major champions Ben Hogan and Ken Venturi.
“Being able to see that at a young age,” Zalatoris said, “and say, ‘Hey, I want to get one of those,’ and seeing Jordan (Spieth) do it when I was in college and obviously Scottie (Scheffler) now, you know — I think playing in these events, you need a lot of results, and at times you may be out of it, but I know for sure I’ll get one.”