What are they going to say now about Will Zalatoris?

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Zalatoris was runner-up at last year's Masters while making his debut at the major tournament

"What are they gonna say now?" So bellowed Will Zalatoris as his ball disappeared for a scrappy but crucial par on the 72nd green on a thrilling final day in Memphis.

It was a vital, curling, grainy putt. It earned a spot in a play-off that ultimately yielded a maiden victory for a player so talented that it felt overdue, even though this is only his second season on the PGA Tour.

So what do we say now?

Here are a few conclusions: First, the 25-year-old American has a putting stroke that might look shaky but can deliver under the most intense pressure.

Second, the opening play-off event generated compelling sporting theatre when the PGA Tour most needed it.

Third, a rules wrangle around Cameron Smith's delayed two stroke penalty did the Florida-based organisation no favours.

And fourthly, everything at the top of the men's game is occurring through the prism of the power struggle triggered by LIV Golf's Saudi-funded incursion into the sport.

Why else did American TV announcer Paul Azinger say: "There's no amount of guaranteed money that can buy what he's feeling right now," after Zalatoris completed his dramatic play-off win over Sepp Straka at the third extra hole?

This comment was swiftly supported by Golf Channel pundit and outspoken LIV critic Brandel Chamblee.

"Overcoming putting demons to become a clutch putter requires a fire that guaranteed money would've extinguished," tweeted the former PGA Tour player.

It was easy to see that this win for Zalatoris meant more than money, never mind that he had already banked $6.7million (£5.5m), a record sum for a winless season.

Now, leading the play-off chase for an $18m (£14.95m) jackpot with two tournaments to go is nice, but surely secondary to the satisfaction of finally getting over the winning line.

Zalatoris was voted PGA Tour rookie of the year for the 2020–21 season

This is a man with three major runner-up finishes to his name. No wonder he yelled "Let's go!", after posing that question about what we might say now.

"It kind of related to my journey so far," admitted the San Francisco native, who has often been dubbed a golfer with a dodgy putting stroke.

"Being that close and then kind of being written off here and there, and then obviously finally pulling off [a win], it was - I actually can't believe I said that," he added while wearing a smile of vindication.

Fortune certainly favoured him on that extraordinary final day of this FedEx St Jude event at TPC Southwind last Sunday.

He had bounced out of the trees in incredible fashion on the 16th hole of regulation play and profited on the third hole of sudden death when Straka found water and a bunker on the 151 yard par-3 11th.

Moments earlier, somehow Zalatoris' ball has ended up on the wall bordering the green from the drink. It was unplayable and he eventually heeded his new caddie's advice to go back to the drop zone, but by then Straka had played four shots.

From 90 yards out, Zalatoris got up and down to end an agonising wait for the 2021 Masters runner up, who lost a play-off to Justin Thomas at this year's PGA Championship and was pipped by Matt Fitzpatrick at the US Open a month later.

"The first second at the Masters 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," Zalatoris reflected.

"The second at the PGA was kind of affirmation that it wasn't a fluke of a week, and the third one at the US 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."

Which makes sense for a player currently peerless with his approach play, deadly with his chips and now clearly capable of digging deep when required on the greens.

Yes, there remain moments when his putter takes a scarily circuitous route through its stroke but there are guts aplenty, proving fortune favoured the brave last week.

Zalatoris had finished runner-up three times this season, including at the PGA Championship and US Open

This win suggests Zalatoris has the mentality to fulfil potential to post many more meaningful triumphs.

Another break was that late imposition of a two stroke penalty on Smith, who was a dangerous presence on the leaderboard and, like Zalatoris, set to go into the final round two strokes behind 54 hole leader JJ Spaun.

The Open champion took a penalty drop on the fourth hole of his third round which earned a cursory glance by officials. They concluded it did not infringe a rule that states the ball should not be touching the line denoting a penalty area.

This was careless, by player and referee; the incident clearly deserved a contemporaneous second look and the error was eventually spotted by a different official viewing later highlights.

So Smith, who misses this week's BMW Championship with a hip problem, was hit with two shots ahead of the final round. Messy. Especially when the player is at the centre of strong rumours that he is to defect to LIV for $100m (£83.1m), guaranteed money, after the playoffs conclude at the end of the month.

The PGA Tour is part of a firmament that prides itself on doing things properly. This is regarded a prime asset in the fight against Greg Norman's brash insurgents, so it was an untimely own goal.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that Zalatoris was two-over-par after his first 11 holes in a prosaic first round 71. His fiancée Caitlin Sellers even asked: "What are your plans if you don't make the weekend?"

The question was rendered redundant by a second round 63 when new bagman Joel Stock was allowed to help read putts. Then the champion added a Saturday 65 before his gutsy closing 66.

"This is why we practice," Zalatoris commented. "I've wanted to chase history my entire career."

There were no short cuts; it was a grind from an unpromising start and it offers ammunition to critics who argue against the merits of LIV's shorter 54 hole format.

And it led to a memorable and meaningful win for one of the outstanding young talents in the game. He needed it, big time, and so did his tour.

There, that's what we can say.

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