If you don’t get the difference between what the PGA Tour is offering and what LIV Golf is offering, watching Will Zalatoris and Sepp Straka trying to win the first FedEx Cup playoff event Sunday afternoon laid it out there in raw and captivating fashion.
That it was Zalatoris, a new star on a comet ride, and Straka, who looks like a guy with whom you might play a weekend round at your club, speaks to the beauty of what the tour offers.
They were guys with one tour victory between them – Straka won the Honda Classic in March – and the golf they played wasn’t perfect, but it was weighted with emotion.
That’s one of the things LIV is missing: the emotion.
Something money can’t buy.
The FedEx Cup playoffs are a contrivance, dipped in the PGA Tour’s pot of money, but the playoffs work. If the best player of this season – Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Smith lead that discussion at the moment – happens to win, all the better.
If not, like the playoffs in other sports, someone gets hot at the right time and rides off with what is now an $18 million bonus. The money will be great but having won the FedEx Cup trophy will set that player apart.
Ask Bill Haas. Ask Billy Horschel.
“Every week that we’re out here, there’s some story of history. I’ve wanted to chase history my entire career, and obviously that’s why I was so vocal about the majors.” – Will Zalatoris
That’s where the great divide falls in professional golf’s current war. One side is selling history and legacy. The other side is selling itself.
Before the FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Zalatoris spent some time doing a photo shoot at nearby Colonial Country Club where Al Geiberger shot the first 59 in PGA Tour history in 1977. Zalatoris was struck by the achievement.
“Every week that we’re out here, there’s some story of history,” he said. “I’ve wanted to chase history my entire career, and obviously that’s why I was so vocal about the majors.”
The majors are where Zalatoris, who turned 26 on Tuesday, had made his name, even without winning. His runner-up finish in the 2021 Masters introduced him to the world and allowed him to play a full tour schedule last season.
His PGA Championship playoff loss to Justin Thomas in May assured Zalatoris that his Masters moment hadn’t been a fluke, and finishing one stroke behind Matt Fitzpatrick at the U.S. Open in June inspired Zalatoris more than frustrated him.
Still, Zalatoris needed to win a tournament because that is the coin of the realm on the PGA Tour. Before he beat Straka in the playoff, Zalatoris had set a tour record for most money earned in a season without a victory. Not exactly the best-player-never-to-win-a-major designation but something like that. Cameron Young, a Zalatoris teammate at Wake Forest, has now inherited that money-won distinction.
“It’s kind of hard to say ‘about time’ when it’s your second year on tour, but ‘about time,’ ” Zalatoris said Sunday evening.
That’s why he shouted “What are they going to say now?” when he holed a 10-foot par putt on the 72nd hole that got him into the playoff. It was a tagline adopted by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, and Zalatoris is a great admirer of Steph Curry, who plays golf out of the Cal Club in San Francisco where Zalatoris was introduced to the game.
Zalatoris knows the rap on him is his putting – his short stroke has at times looked less than reassuring – but he believes he’s a good putter, which can matter more than stats, which are better than public perception might suggest.
He made the putts that mattered Sunday, and now Zalatoris sits atop the playoff race.
Working with coach Josh Gregory, Zalatoris has refined his approach both in his long game and his putting. It started at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills with Zalatoris essentially taking what the day is giving him.
If he’s hitting a cut, he plays that. If the ball is going right to left, he leans on that. Sometimes simple answers take a while to find.
On the greens, Zalatoris has tried to uncomplicate his approach. He walks quickly and tends to talk quickly. Why not rely on his natural rhythms over a putt?
In his first week with new caddie Joel Stock, Zalatoris heard the same message – keep up the flow – over and over.
“Being able to just look at the target, roll the ball to there and move on, accept what happens from there. It’s the same thing in my full swing: take a couple practice swings, I walk into it, take two looks and then go. The second my eyes come back to the ball, the club’s being pulled back,” Zalatoris said.
“So being as reactive as possible is huge for me. Some guys need to be a little bit slower and methodical, and I’m a guy that I need to just keep up the rhythm.”
It has staked Zalatoris to an early lead in the FedEx Cup playoffs, and it feels like he’s just getting started.
Top: Will Zalatoris shows the emotion that typified his victory Sunday in Memphis. Photo: Ben Jared, PGA Tour via Getty Images
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