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Matt Fitzpatrick digs out of the sand to win U.S. Open for first major title

Matt Fitzpatrick added a U.S. Open title to his 2013 U.S. Amateur championship. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
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BROOKLINE, Mass. — Someday when the Bostonians with their bursting sports memory banks recollect this gripping golf Sunday, they might gab on about those front-running kids and the brilliant rounds they shot in the barbaric U.S. Open pressure. They might yak about how the hard, honest Country Club course finally held a major after 34 years and became a star its own self. Then again, they might just go straight to what happened out of the diabolical sand on No. 18.

There, in a fairway bunker everyone tells everyone to avoid, stood Matt Fitzpatrick, a 27-year-old golf savant and stat freak and fastidious note-taker and Englishman from steely Sheffield. He stood at 6 under par, one shot ahead of playing partner Will Zalatoris and reigning Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. He stood 161 yards from the front of the green, and he stood with nothing but a measly 9-iron.

One smashing blast to 18 feet later, plus one two-putt par — plus one 14-foot birdie try by Zalatoris that slid barely left — Fitzpatrick stood as a U.S. Open champion. He stood as the only man other than Jack Nicklaus to win a U.S. Open on the same course he won the U.S. Amateur, which Fitzpatrick did at 18 in 2013, which he saw as a genuine advantage on a course most players had not weathered. He stood as the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Justin Rose in 2013 and just the second since Tony Jacklin in 1970. He stood as a first-time major winner and a first-time winner on the PGA Tour. Then he stood and walked behind the green and hugged his parents and brother with a smile of a rapturous depth.

And on his 29th try at majors, he stood as yet another of golf’s 20-something marvels primed to contend halfway to forever.

“Unbelievable,” he said.

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That word works as well for the shot destined to outlast all the other shots on a Sunday when three guys separated themselves and jockeyed, each grabbing the lead as Scheffler shot a 67, then Fitzpatrick shot a 68, then Zalatoris shot a 69 just a minute after that. As Fitzpatrick held his one-shot lead at the final tee and hooked one into that sand as Zalatoris had knocked it in the fairway, it seemed Zalatoris, 25, might not get relegated to his otherworldly third runner-up in the mere nine majors he has played, nor to his otherworldly sixth top-10 finish in same.

“Matt’s shot on 18 is going to be shown, probably, for the rest of U.S. Open history,” Zalatoris said, “because that — I walked by it, and I thought that going for it was going to be ballsy, but the fact that he pulled it off and even had a birdie look was just incredible.”

Yet just as promptly as he had hit it in, he gamely hit it out. For one thing, he knew of Zalatoris’s mastery of approach shots because he knew his stats — because he always knows his stats as a complement to keeping a record of every shot he hits. The “good thing about knowing your stats,” he said, is “you know who you’re playing against.” He knew he had to reach the green.

Yeah, whatever, but then . . .

“When I look back, it all happened so fast,” he said. “It was kind of just like natural ability took over and just played the shot that was at hand, as if I was a junior trying to hit it close. And I didn’t mean to do that, but I just committed to the shot we kind of planned and came out of it squeezy fade. Yeah, it was amazing.”

Yeah.

“Yeah, it’s one of the best shots I ever hit — no doubt about it.”

Another, not far down the list, might be his whack on the par-4 No. 15 from 220 yards through a parting of the crowd to the green. There and then, he and Zalatoris stood tied at 5 under, four holes after Zalatoris had led by two at 6 under. Now, after a dreadful drive into the tromped-upon dirt, Fitzpatrick had to ask people to make one of those gallery alleys for the ball to travel through, and for all the inconvenience, Fitzpatrick sent that thing high and bright to 18 feet.

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His putt from there went right down the boulevard for an outrageous birdie.

All the while, Zalatoris had made a troubled trek to the same green, lapsing into both a second cut of rough on the right and a green-side bunker. He wound up with a bogey, and when Scheffler, still just 25 and the world’s No. 1 player, birdied No. 17, he joined the thick of it again and wedged between the other two players at 5 under before a masterful birdie by Zalatoris on the par-3 No. 16 got him tied with Scheffler. “My game is still in a good spot,” Scheffler would say of coming up just shy of a second major title and a whopping fifth tour win since February.

Those three lured the lenses all afternoon as other capable sorts tailed off. Those included Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner now winless in 28 straight majors after a 69 that saw him disappear, pop back up at 2 under for the finish and say of processing it, “It will take a while probably.” Those included Jon Rahm, the defending champion who defended well and contended by the outset but dropped thereafter to a 74 and 1 over. There was Keegan Bradley, the New England local hero who couldn’t quite menace with his 71 to finish 1 under, and there was Sam Burns, the two-time winner this year who plummeted to a 76 and 5 over.

Then there were Hideki Matsuyama and Collin Morikawa, who joined the back edge of the fray at 3 under and 2 under with a 65 and a 66, respectively — Morikawa had the odd graph of 69-66-77-66 for the week — with Morikawa calling the course “the best place I’ve played in a while” other than minuscule misgivings. Denny McCarthy, the Georgetown Prep and University of Virginia graduate, played some sublime stuff in his second straight 68 for a 1-under finish even though a closing bogey from the bunker in front of the green left him bummed.

Soon enough the last pair of Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris got to No. 18, and the rowdy crowd bunched behind them, and Fitzpatrick said of beloved longtime caddie Billy Foster, “I felt like Billy and me were going to get stampeded, but we didn’t.”

No, one of them went into the sand and then went into the lore.

“I just love winning,” Fitzpatrick said. “I absolutely love winning. I don’t care who it is, but I just want to beat everyone. Although it doesn’t come across — I don’t show it much because I like to be quite reserved — yeah, I just love beating everyone. It’s as simple as that.”

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