Will Zalatoris defeats Sepp Straka in wild playoff to win FedEx St. Jude Championship

·6 min read

When Will Zalatoris opened the FedEx St. Jude Championship with a disappointing 1-over 71, his fiancée, Caitlin Sellers, phoned and innocently asked him, “What are your plans if you don’t make the weekend?”

“She meant that all in good fun,” Zalatoris said on Saturday.

And what did he tell her?

“I told her let’s cross that bridge when we get there,” Zalatoris said.

He did more than stick around for the weekend. After three runner-up finishes, including two at majors and two playoff defeats, Zalatoris was the victor of a sudden-death playoff over Sepp Straka to win his first PGA Tour title and vault into the top spot in the FedEx Cup point standings.

“It’s kind of hard to say ‘about time’ when it’s your second year on Tour, but about time,” Zalatoris said. “Considering all the close finishes that I’ve had this year, to finally pull it off, it means a lot.”

The 25-year-old reigning Tour rookie of the year shot a final-round 4-under 66 at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the second player to win his first tournament in the playoffs, joining Camilo Villegas, who did so at the 2008 BMW Championship. Ranked No. 14 in the world entering the week, Zalatoris already had a fruitful season, which included eight top-10s, the most among players without a win. He had threatened to claim his first Tour victory on several occasions, narrowly missing a birdie putt at the last to force a playoff at the U.S. Open and suffered playoff losses at the Farmers Insurance Open and PGA Championship.

2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship
2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship

Will Zalatoris holds the trophy after winning the 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind in Memphis. (Photo: Christine Tannous/The Commercial Appeal)

Zalatoris made sure he had weekend plans, rebounding with a bogey-free 63, his lowest round on Tour since the second round of the American Express in January. It didn’t take long for Zalatoris to figure out the reason for his sluggish start.

Zalatoris said he didn’t allow his new caddie, Joel Stock, to read the putts on the first day as they learn to get a feel for each other. Stock served as Zalatoris’s sidekick for the first time since Zalatoris and his longtime caddie, Ryan Goble, parted ways in the middle of last week’s Wyndham Championship.

Zalatoris posted a 65 on Saturday to climb within two strokes of the lead. He birdied the first three holes of the final round, including a 15-footer at the third, to take the lead. Zalatoris made a bogey at No. 7 but regained the lead with a birdie at 10. Straka, 29, who snapped a streak of six missed cuts and hadn’t played on the weekend since the Memorial in early June, made birdie at the 12th to tie Zalatoris for the lead at 14 under.

Both Zalatoris, a Wake Forest product, and Straka, a Georgia grad, converted short birdie putts at the par-5 16th to climb to 15 under. Zalatoris boomed a 310-yard drive at 18 into the right fairway bunker, came up short with his approach, pitched to 10 feet and canned the par putt. After being criticized for his unorthodox putting stroke, Zalatoris celebrated his clutch putt by referencing a Steph Curry line, exclaiming, “What are they going to say now?”

“I actually can’t believe I said that,” Zalatoris said, noting he’s a big Golden State Warriors fan and when Curry said that “it kind of related to kind of my journey so far…At least it wasn’t something worse, but yeah.”

Straka missed a 22-foot birdie putt to win in regulation as they tied at 15-under 265.

It was a wild playoff with Straka having to can a 6-foot par putt at 18 after his 24-foot putt for the win raced by at the first extra hole. Returning to 18 again, both players overcame poor tee shots to salvage par. And then it got really zany at the par-3 11th hole. Zalatoris had the honors and his tee shot bounced on the retaining wall multiple times, avoiding the water and settling between the wall and the rough.

Advantage Straka, except his tee shot bounced into the pond fronting the green. Following a drop, his third flew the green and landed in a bunker. After much deliberation, Zalatoris elected to take a drop, too, rather than risk hitting against the rock retaining wall.

“I couldn’t get the club on the ball,” Zalatoris said. “Considering where Sepp was and he had four feet for 5, there’s no reason for me to try that shot and make it bank right into the grass and go back in the water and all of a sudden I’ve lost the golf tournament.”

Zalatoris’s third shot from 94 yards stopped 7 feet from the hole and he lifted his arms to the sky when his putt dropped in.

With the victory, Zalatoris also earned quadruple points and unseated Scottie Scheffler, who missed the cut on Friday and had held the lead since March. But Scheffler remained World No. 1 as Cameron Smith was docked two strokes before the final round got underway for a penalty he committed on the fourth hole during the third round. Instead of trailing by two heading into the final round, Smith’s deficit bumped to four. He shot even-par 70 and finished T-13, six strokes back.

Lucas Glover, who started the week at No. 121 in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, made birdies at 16 and 17 to tie for the lead at 13 under, but bogeyed the last hole to shoot 66 and tie for third. He vaulted to No. 34 in the points standing and was among the top 70 to advance to the second playoff event at next week’s BMW Championship.

But this week belonged to Zalatoris, who won for the first time in his 56th start after many close calls.

“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 said. “The second at the PGA was kind of affirmation that it wasn’t a fluke of a week, and the third one at the U.S. 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 and obviously this was my week.”

Zalatoris planned to celebrate, but he also was quick to point out that their was more work left to do.

“I think I’ve always had the attitude of the job’s not done and as great as it is to pull this off, I still feel like I’ve got some unfinished business going forward,” he said. “It’s obviously very satisfying, but this is the peak season for us obviously for the PGA Tour players and the grind continues.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek