As streams of excited golf fans at the FedEx St. Jude Championship made their way to the third playoff hole, someone in the crowd screamed, “Cue the music; we’re walking in Memphis.”
At that point on late Sunday afternoon, thousands upon thousands of others were watching on television to see the conclusion of a golf tournament that already had morphed into must-see entertainment.
While the song that captured a 1992 Grammy Song of the Year award called for walking in Memphis, many in the crowd surging for hole No. 11 at TPC Southwind were outright sprinting to be in place for the next segment of the duel between Sepp Straka and the eventual winner, Will Zalatoris.
Already entertained by the first two playoff holes – a double dose of hole No. 18 – those who thronged the peninsula-shaped green that is No. 11 got even more drama, with Zalatoris emerging with hands raised above his head, his putter in hand after holing what proved to be a winning bogey putt.
“It was a grind,” said Zalatoris, who had already become a big moneymaker on the PGA tour but had not won a tournament. “It is pretty cool!”
The victory in the first leg of the FedEx Playoffs vaulted Zalatoris to the top of the playoff rankings and an automatic spot in the final leg at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. The top 70 players advance to next week’s second round at the BMW Championship at Wilmington Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware.
As for how he intends to proceed after his championship walk through Memphis, Zalatoris said, “Keep doing what we are doing.”
Zalatoris and Straka finished regulation play tied at 15-under. The playoff formula called for playing hole No. 18 to determine a winner but nothing had been decided when both parred the hole. They still were tied after replaying the hole, with both staring down and playing through major challenges.
That set golf fans in motion for hole No. 11 and what turned into a finish that reverberated through the golf world.
“I am disappointed right now with that last hole,” said Straka, the 29-year-old Austrian golfer. “Overall, it was a good fight. I will be happy with that. It was pretty nerve-racking.”
There was plenty for Straka, who won the Honda Classic earlier this season, to build upon.
He came tantalizingly close to winning the tournament in regulation, missing a 20-foot birdie opportunity on No. 18. On the first playoff hole, he had a chance to win with a 25-foot putt. He kept the drama going by holing a 7-foot putt as the duel covered the 18th hole a second time.
Prior to teeing off in Memphis, Zalatoris had earned more money this season than any player in a single season without a victory. He caught a huge break on the par-5 16th hole. He hit a tree, but the ball bounced forward, leaving him in position for an eagle. He settled for a birdie.
With his ball landing in the fairway sand trap on No. 18 during regulation, Zalatoris fans – and there were many chanting, “Will. Will. You can do it!” – clearly were nervous. He launched a rocket to the green and holed a 10-footer to finish with a final round 66.
On the second playoff run through hole 18, Zalatoris was back in trouble, with his tee shot coming to rest perilously close to a fence that divides the course from one of the abutting homes. He chipped out and eventually sank a 15-foot par putt.
“I did not have issues with (the) boundary fence, but I could have pulled that shot off. Considering the circumstance, it wasn’t worth it,” said Zalatoris.
“When I chipped out that is when he (Straka) decided to take a drop. I did not want to make a decision that could ruin my chances of winning a golf tournament.”
Straka’s tee shot on the second playoff hole also had gone astray, landing so close to one of the many bodies of water on the course that he rolled up his pant leg, took off his shoes and socks and stepped in to determine if he could position himself to advance his second shot over the water toward the green.
He elected to take a drop rather than take the shot.
“I was going to see if the bank was high enough where I could get a good stance and try to get it around the green somewhere,” he said. “I decided to play smart and take my chances.”
Both made par, setting up the drama of the final playoff hole.
Straka hit his tee shot into the water, with his dropshot landing in a greenside bunker. He blasted out and was facing a double-bogey putt on the par 3.
Zalatoris had hit first, with his tee shot making it across the water and dramatically bouncing seven times atop a bed of greenside rocks before coming to rest.
After a lengthy consultation, he accepted the guidance of his caddie, retraced his steps, hit from the drop zone and landed seven feet from the cup.
The bogey putt was the tournament winner, locking up a victory that many project will launch Zalatoris forward in a golf career that will make him legendary.
Regardless, he never will forget this past Sunday in Memphis.
Nor will the people who saw him get it done.