Can’t blame the rail-thin 25-year-old for tiring of runner-up status. Zalatoris finished second at the Masters last year, one stroke behind Hideki Matsuyama. He finished second at the PGA Championship last month, losing a playoff to Justin Thomas. And Sunday, his agony extended further when his 15-foot downhill birdie putt on the 18th hole skipped just past the lip of the cup.
Had it rolled a grass blade to the right, he and Matt Fitzpatrick would have headed to a playoff. Instead, Zalatoris found himself in a position he knew all too well.
“With about six feet to go, I thought I had it,” Zalatoris said. “I was just checking my phone earlier, and a bunch of people were saying that [TV commentator Paul Azinger] had said that everyone missed that putt high. I was the closest one every day.
“I was, like, ‘Thanks for the consolation prize.’ “
Zalatoris turned pro four years ago, and while he won a Korn Ferry tournament two years ago, he is winless on the PGA Tour. His world ranking will rise from No. 14 after Sunday’s showing, and while he is more frustrated than anyone with his gold medal deficiencies, he exuded confidence that good things will come to him eventually.
He’s come too close, too often to reach any other conclusion.
“It obviously stings to have three runner-ups so far in my career in majors, but keep knocking on that door,” said Zalatoris. “We’re obviously doing the right things. I’d pay a lot of money for about an inch-and-a-half, and I’d probably be a 3-time major champion at this point. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Zalatoris was gracious and positive in his remarks, complimentary of Fitzpatrick’s gutsy second shot from a fairway bunker at 18 to 19 feet. But Fitzpatrick didn’t need that birdie like Zalatoris did.
”I’m just fresh coming off of 18 because I thought I had it, and it just happened to stay out there — this one hasn’t sunk in,” said Zalatoris. “I honestly don’t know what to take from this yet. I was pretty pleased just because I’m known for my ball-striking. I’m sure all the Instagram morons are going to say it has something to do with my left wrist flexion coming down, but I promise you, it’s got nothing to do with it.
“I think, just keep doing what we’re doing. This one stings for sure, but I know that we’re going to get this.”
Zalatoris started in the final group of the day with Fitzpatrick, the two tied at 4-under. Fitzpatrick started strong, with two birdies in the first five holes, while Zalatoris bogeyed Nos. 2 and 3. But rather than fade away, Zalatoris settled in. He ran off birdies at Nos. 6, 7, 9 and at the par-3 11th, where he hit the green for the first time all tournament and rolled in an 18-footer to go 6-under, two ahead of Fitzpatrick.
Zalatoris bogeyed nos. 12 and 15, the latter of which Fitzpatrick birdied for a two-shot lead. A birdie by Zalatoris on No. 16 closed the gap back to one, but he left a 12-foot birdie try on No. 17 short before the miss on the last.
The performance, both mentally and physically, was championship-caliber. It’s the “caliber” part Zalatoris is looking to evaporate.
“Even though I got off to kind of a rough start, I just felt comfortable all day, even kind of being behind the eight ball and having to save par. It’s just a tough golf course,” said Zalatoris. “So I think the comfort level being in these situations is just going to get better and better. I’ve already been asked, ‘How nervous were you on the putt on 18?’ It’s like, I’ve got nothing to lose. It either goes in or it doesn’t.
“I’m not happy with finishing second. It’s not like I’m trying to coax that down there. I’m obviously trying to make it. The comfort level is there, especially now that I know I can do this. I just have to keep waiting my turn.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.