Expletives, joy and grief: Scenes from a wild Sunday finish at Riviera

LOS ANGELES — It was a routine golf question, a basic press conference opener to get things rolling and learn about his week. And that’s how Will Zalatoris took it. Yeah, pretty excited about where my game’s headed. But then he couldn’t fake it any longer.

“I didn’t say anything all week, but I… sorry…”

He stared off into the distance with his eyes welling, his left hand nervously rubbing the back of his neck as he tried to compose himself. Thirty seconds of empty space passed. He looked over in the corner to his wife, Caitlin, for a quick moment. All week he played golf, signed his scorecard and came over to the tent to answer golf questions. But not right now.

“I lost a family member on Thursday and she was — she was with me all week,” he said.

The family member unexpectedly died Thursday, and he found out after his opening round at the Genesis Invitational. The next day, he hit a hole-in-one on 16. Two days later he finished tied for second at maybe the biggest PGA Tour event of the season 10 months after major back surgery. This was a monumental moment for the 27-year-old rising star, and suddenly he was pausing, unsure of where he was going to go after this, whether he’d return to his family or go to the next PGA Tour stop in Mexico. He truly didn’t know.

But just outside the raw emotion of the media tent, Hideki Matsuyama walked by with five cameras directly behind him and five more members of Japanese media surrounding him as he made his way to the 18th green to celebrate his massive win at Riviera.

A few more seconds later, Xander Schauffele walked by. Then came Patrick Cantlay’s coach and manager. Schauffele and Cantlay entered the day in the final group, and once again, both missed an opportunity for a marquee win, four shots back of Matsuyama.

Here, on perhaps the biggest Sunday of the PGA Tour season, a roller-coaster final round meant a day of joy, frustration, grief and even illness. Here are some of those stories:

There are many ways to deliver an f-bomb. There’s the tilt-the-head back and drop the expletive in exasperation. There’s the body-tensing, shoulders-hunched “F—” in impulsive anger. There are all sorts of variations of elongated, playful ones. Or sometimes there’s the quick, soft jolt f-bomb. But as Patrick Cantlay walked off the sixth green after missing a seven-foot birdie putt, he dropped it in the only way one would expect from the man known as “Patty Ice.” There was no movement in his shoulders. There was no movement in the head. His eyes simply stared forward without any emotion one way or the other as he calmly said, “F—.”

This is how Cantlay golfs. He will not display joy in his greatest triumphs. He will not provide demonstrative anguish when he makes a mistake. He just plays. And it also represents how he plays. Cantlay does not play poetic golf. He does not even play volatile golf. He plays steady, balanced golf in which he’s above average to great in all four categories, maintains those strengths every single year and finishes in the top-20 about 15 times a year.

So with a 54-hole lead at Riviera, one might have assumed Cantlay had this in the bag. At one point his lead Friday and Saturday was as large as five. But sometimes the most painful losses don’t come from collapses. They come from simply not being the one to grab it.

Cantlay parred each of the first nine holes while others like Matsuyama and Luke List got hot to take the lead from him. He then bogeyed the 10th hole, finding himself in neutral while others went on runs. He birdied the 11th hole thanks to a beautiful, long shot out of the rough, but from there on out he bogeyed two more and fell out of contention.

After the round, Cantlay’s coach, Jamie Mulligan, told Golf Channel that Cantlay woke up with a fever above 100 degrees and other unspecified symptoms of illness. It explained why Cantlay, normally such an accurate, controlled player, consistently missed fairways and lacked sharpness. It was a strange week of illness all around, with host Tiger Woods withdrawing Friday and being carted off with the flu and star Jordan Spieth apparently being “really sick” when he made a mistake on his scorecard that disqualified him, Schauffele said.

Still, it represents another frustrating missed opportunity for Cantlay and his good friend and group partner Schauffele. They are considered the best two current players — other than maybe Viktor Hovland — without a major. They’ve been top-10 players for the better part of the last half decade. They’ve been mainstays on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. But in the biggest moments, both have left fans wanting more.

Schauffele has been in the mix in many majors and faltered on Sundays, in particular the 2021 Masters and 2023 U.S. Open. Cantlay hasn’t had the Sunday struggles, but he hasn’t been truly in contention in a major in five years.

And they entered Sunday in first and second place with a chance at one of the biggest wins of their respective careers, and they shot a combined even par.

The quick answer was no. Matsuyama did not think he could win when he woke up this morning six shots back. He laughed when the question was translated to him in Japanese.

“I was not feeling comfortable with my ball-striking,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “So I was kind of thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to have a couple missed shots today,’ but maybe that kind of worked out.”

Here was a 31-year-old golfer trying to get back, back to the level that lifted him to world No. 2 seven years ago, back to the level that won him a green jacket at the 2021 Masters. Neck injuries have meant an up-and-down, somewhat disappointing past two seasons, and he was far from exactly contending this week in Los Angeles.

But he opened his round with three straight birdies to get within three. Then six straight pars, and by then List was on his own heater to overtake Cantlay for the lead. But just like his epic Saturday back nine to win the Masters, Matsuyama had nine holes of greatness in the bag.

Matsuyama hit a perfect drive on the famous short par 4 No. 10 to set up birdie. He hit a 38-yard chip out of the rough on 11 for another birdie. Next was a 46-foot putt on 12 to make it three straight. Something was happening.

And on 15, Matsuyama hit a six-iron 189 yards to within eight inches of the hole. On 16, he one-upped himself. He hit it to six inches. Add in an easy birdie on the par 5 17th, and the tournament was all but over. Matsuyama birdied six of eight holes to shoot a final round 62 and snag the Genesis Invitational.

The win is Matsuyama’s ninth on the PGA Tour, making him the winningest Asian-born player in tour history.

Since his fourth win, fellow Japanese golfer Shigeki Maruyama has hounded Matsuyama that he needed to be the one to pass K.J. Choi’s eight wins. Then he got five at the Masters and two more in early 2022. After his eighth win that winter in Hawaii, Maruyama texted him to remind him of what they always talked about.

“I’ll definitely text Shigeki that I achieved this win this week,” Matsuyama said.

Will Zalatoris (Michael Owens / Getty Images)

It all looks so different now that we know. He threw his arms up in the air and jumped into his caddie Joel Stock’s arms like a little kid. Stock carried him for several feet and repeatedly slapped his back. Zalatoris hit a perfect shot Friday into the 16th green that bounced off the fringe and rolled into the cup for a hole-in-one.

Zalatoris was already the story of the week. A year ago he was one of the top young talents in the game, a semi-confusing ball striking prodigy who somehow had six top-10 finishes in major championships before he even won a tournament. He finally won that first tournament at the tour’s FedEx Cup Playoff event in Memphis in August 2022. Six months later his back issues reached the point he needed season-ending surgery. And back issues for an athletic, explosive player like Zalatoris can be terrifying.

And here he was in his fifth tournament back, and Zalatoris hit an ace with a 66 on Friday. Then came a 65 on Saturday to get within two shots of Cantlay. And after he birdied 13 on Sunday, Zalatoris had the solo lead at Riviera. The story wrote itself.

But now we know what Zalatoris was feeling at that moment Friday. We know it had been less than 24 hours since he was told a family member died. We know the journey he’s been through the last 12 months and the pain of the last four days, and one understands this is all a little bigger than golf. Yeah, he finished second, and he was disappointed. Yeah, it’s just one step in a long process. And for three days, he bottled those feelings up and played golf, and talked about golf, and tried to act normal.

But then he walked up to that tent, and he couldn’t fake it any longer. He let it out. And maybe now he can move forward.

(Top photo:  Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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