BROOKLINE, Mass.; – From the US Open celebration erupted behind him, Billy Foster wept. The 59-year-old Brit has been a professional caddie for the better part of four decades. He has caddied for top pros and legends of the game, including Seve Ballesteros, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. But he has never been on the bag for a major championship. Until now.
Foster separated himself from the celebration. He walked toward the hole and grasped the red “USGA” flag with his right hand. He planted a firm kiss on the corner.
“Billy has been saying for a while, the time will come,” his boss, newly minted US Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, said in his winner’s press conference. “You’re playing so well. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It will come. It will happen. It will happen. ”
Foster must have been telling himself, too. It will happen.
The week started as a nightmare for the US Open. The Saudi-backed breakaway LIV tour dominates the lead-up to America’s national championship. PGA Tour defector Phil Mickelson kicked off the week with a strange, morose press conference, and that gloom spread over his fellow competitors. Gossip swirled throughout practice rounds. Brooks Koepka called the distractions “a black cloud.” Collin Morikawa decried the rumor mill. But there was no stopping it.
72-hole tournament stroke play – suddenly under fire. The question of “what really matters” suddenly felt very fungible. Playing a simple tournament, even one with the gravitas of the US Open, felt frivolous given the circumstances. Were the players fiddling while Rome burned? But they played on non impressively. Damn good thing, too. Because on Sunday afternoon, we were reminded why they do this, and why we watch, to start with.
Seventy-two holes is the perfect number for a golf tournament. There are two rounds to thin the competitors and separate the competitors. There’s one day for moving, for jostling, for jockeying for position. And there’s a final day to put everyone in a giant pressure cooker and see how they react. Three rounds is undoubtedly too few. Five rounds would clearly be too many. Four rounds? To borrow from my former colleague, the legendary Michael Bamberger: That’s just right.
Sunday’s final round underscored just how much this championship is about the key characters of its conclusion.
There was Keegan Bradley on the 18th green, soaking up the adoration of his beloved New England crowd. He started Sunday’s final round just two shots back but soon seven shots off the pace. He rallied with birdies at 7, 8 and 11 to give himself a fighting chance and tried his best to soak up the moment.
“I told my caddie on the 12th hole that I’ve really got to enjoy this coming in,” he said post-round. “Something I never really take a second to do, because I could never get this opportunity again, and I did that.”
Bradley finished T7. Given the KEE-GAN chants that rained down on the 18th green, there was no question he was leaving a winner.
“Man, I’ll remember that rest of my life,” he said. “It was really special.”
There was Rory McIlroy, left ruing another missed opportunity. The four-time major champion spent the first few years. He has spent the years since his last major in a massive shadow, chasing the accomplishments of his own accomplished past.
“It’s been eight years since I won a major, and I just want to get my hands on one again,” McIlroy said after Thursday’s opening round. His brilliant, maddening, uneven final-round 69 left him T5, just close enough for it to hurt a little extra.
“The game’s there. Another top five in a major. I guess that doesn’t really mean anything, ”he said. Then he said it twice more. “The game’s there. The game’s there. ”
Joel Dahmen, who once said he could never win a major championship, led the tournament at its halfway point. He hung on over the weekend and came home with a respectable Sunday 71 for a share of 10th place, guaranteeing himself a spot in the next Kat US Open. He’s thrilled to have it, if not disappointed to come a little closer.
“I’m very proud of myself for the way I handled myself on the weekend,” he said. “I showed myself a lot of other people that I’m pretty good at golf.”
Dahmen’s week was a cocktail of pride and doubt and pressure and frustration. When you care, it all gets complicated.
There was Will Zalatoris, chasing his first major championship, until he birdie putt just skated past the edge on the 18th green. He finished second at last Kat Masters. He lost in a playoff at this Kat PGA Championship. And on Sunday he finished a whisker shy of another playoff, settling instead for a huge, huge, frustrating share of second place.
“This one hurts in particular pretty hard, but it’s motivating,” he said, processing his own pride and pain in real time. “I’ve got to keep doing what I’m doing. I know I’m going to get one sooner or later. ”
There was Scottie Scheffler, chasing the sequel to his win at Augusta this spring. He built a two-shot lead with four birdies in the first six holes, lost it with two bogeys in a row and got him back with a birdie at 16 and a near-miss at 18.
“It’s just really special to have the crowd behind you and to make big shots,” he said. “I enjoyed today a lot. Unfortunately, it was just a short shot, but it was really special being able to compete. ”
With the T2, Scheffler reached $ 12.9 million in yearly earnings, setting an all-time record for a single PGA Tour season. There’s a whole bunch that money can buy. Not quite everything, though.
Fitzpatrick earned $ 3.1 million with his win. After the round he broke down the biomechanical transformation he’s undergone to get from an undersized-but-overperforming Tour pro to someone who could contend with the game’s biggest bashers at a brawny US Open.
Since he was 15, Fitzpatrick has charted every single shot he has hit in a round. Line, distance, proximity to target. He has the vast database of his entire game. Two years ago Mike Walker started working with biomechanist Sasho Mackenzie. Week-in, week-out, Fitzpatrick swung his Stack speed stick.
“I’ve been doing that religiously,” he said. “It’s like a training program. I’ll be honest, it’s worked wonders. ”
In golf, progress is rarely so linear. But there’s a straight line to be drawn from Fitzpatrick’s ridiculous discipline and relentless hard work to his Sunday victory. This was a win for the little things. It was a rejection of shortcuts. It was an affirmation that golfers aren’t born, they’re built. It was even a nod to history; Fitzpatrick’s 2013 US Amateur win came at Brookline, too.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am, it’s at the same time, I can’t tell you how happy I am, how well I’ve played. It means so much, ”he said.
Given the context of this week, it was not possible to contrast the tournament’s conclusion with last week’s LIV debut. Fitzpatrick’s first-prize payout couldn’t match that of Charl Schwartzel’s $ 4.75 million win at Centurion. By any other measure, the US Open – its contestants, its venue, its drama, its excitement and its meaning – blew away the competition. Sounds like a professional golf tournaments issue. But context does not matter. This is the US Open Open because last year, and the years before that, and the decades of championships before that, too.
The golf club’s major championships are the beginning of something much, much different. Even at Sunday’s glorious finish granted us relief from LIV’s endless news cycle, the specter of the breakaway league hung in the air.
Bryson DeChambeau finished Sunday’s round and headed straight for the range, beginning preparations for Pumpkin Ridge in two weeks’ time. LIV headliner Dustin Johnson finished his round, slipped past media and was accompanied by Paulina Gretzky, the newlyweds rolling off property just minutes after signing his card. As the leaders finished their front nine, a TV series confirmed the departure of Abraham Ancer to the LIV tour.
In other words, even this week was a small battle won by golf’s status quo, it didn’t mean much in the future for golf’s future. This is just the beginning. PGA Tour starts again at the Travelers Championship in a few days’ time. Jay Monahan will provide members with “several important updates” and answer questions. More top pros will announce their departures. Eye-popping dollars values will catch our attention.
What actually matters will suddenly seem murkier again. We’ll have the memories of Zalatoris agonizing over that last missed putt, and Bradley soaking up that final ovation and McIlroy exhaling on his way off the 18th green, knowing what could have been – but those will fade, too.
Golf’s majors will endure. Regardless of the fight for LIV’s future, the game’s biggest stars will show up at the Open Championship in one month’s time. The Sunday show will show up on St. Andrews’ yellow leaderboards. Some golfers are built for this sort of thing, after all. Matthew Fitzpatrick has built himself to be one of them.
It will happen. That was Foster’s message for Fitzpatrick. Now it has. We saw and felt just how much it meant.
We just don’t know what will happen next.