BROOKLINE, Mass. -- A playoff was looming Sunday in the U.S. Open, just like it always does at The Country Club, when Matt Fitzpatrick sized up his shot from a bunker left of the 18th fairway.
He had a 1-shot lead over Will Zalatoris and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. He had a big patch of rough-filled turf in front of him, along with a gaping bunker protecting the green and a flag 156 yards away. Nothing less than a U.S. Open title was on the line.
On a back nine filled with clutch moments, Fitzpatrick delivered the biggest of them all.
"One of the best shots I ever hit,'' he said.
Fitzpatrick hit 9-iron that started around the steep lip -- a "squeezy fade,'' he called it -- carried the front bunker and settled 18 feet away, setting up a par for a 2-under 68 that made the Englishman a major champion for his first professional win in America.
He won the U.S. Amateur at Brookline in 2013, making him the 13th man to win both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open in his career -- and only the second to win both on the same course. Jack Nicklaus, the name on the gold winner's medal draped around his neck, turned the trick at Pebble Beach. Juli Inkster won the U.S. Women's Amateur and U.S. Women's Open at Prairie Dunes.
"The feeling's out of this world,'' Fitzpatrick said. "It is so cliché, but it's stuff you dream of as a kid. Yeah, to achieve it, I can retire a happy man tomorrow."
Zalatoris, with remarkable resiliency during a tense battle at Brookline, had a 15-foot birdie to force a playoff. He dropped to his knees when the putt slid by the left edge of the cup. He shot 69 and was runner-up for the third time in the past seven majors; he lost in a playoff to Justin Thomas in the PGA Championship last month.
Zalatoris and Scheffler, who earlier had a longer birdie putt to catch up to Fitzpatrick, did all they could. Fitzpatrick was convinced his time was coming, and he grabbed it.
The celebration felt familiar. Fitzpatrick shared tearful hugs with his parents and his younger brother, Alex, who caddied for him in the Amateur. He stayed with the same family.
The payoff was $3.15 million and a title -- major champion -- that money can't buy.
One of the first phone calls came from Nicklaus, the four-time U.S. Open champion. Turns out Fitzpatrick won the member-member at The Bear's Club -- the course Nicklaus built in South Florida -- and what the Golden Bear said that day was not forgotten.
"He gave me a bit of abuse at the start of the year. He said, 'Finally. Congratulations for winning in the States,'" Fitzpatrick said. And then, slightly lifting the trophy, Fitzpatrick sent a fun message to Nicklaus: "Jack, I won a second time.''
Fitzpatrick became the first player since Graeme McDowell in 2010 to earn his first PGA Tour win at the U.S. Open.
It took a good break, a signature shot and some guts at the end.
Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris were tied going to the 15th when the Englishman hit his tee shot so far right that it went into the gallery and found a decent lie on grass that was dead and trampled. Zalatoris missed by only a few yards and was buried in deep grass.
"I feel like all year we've just had moments where I've just not caught a break, just not had a lie, just not had a bounce. This time I get there, and the ball's sitting perfectly,'' Fitzpatrick said. "It was one of the best shots I hit all day.''
He blistered a 5-iron from 220 yards to 18 feet below the hole. Zalatoris went into the front bunker, blasted out to 25 feet and made bogey. Fitzpatrick took a 2-shot lead when his birdie putt went into the cup with such perfect pace it didn't even touch the pin he leaves in the cup.
"To do that and take advantage of the break I had was fantastic,'' Fitzpatrick said.
Zalatoris again bounced back, taking on a tough pin at the par-3 16th to 7 feet for birdie to cut the lead to 1 shot. Both missed 12-foot birdie chances on the 17th, and then Fitzpatrick missed a fairway at the wrong time. It looked like a playoff was eminent -- the previous three U.S. Opens at Brookline were all decided by a playoff -- until the shot of his life.
Fitzpatrick, 27, finished at 6-under 274. He became the first Englishman since Justin Rose in 2013 to win the U.S. Open, and the youngest player from England to win a major since Tony Jacklin at the 1970 U.S. Open. He felt his time was coming.
Fitzpatrick is meticulous in charting his shots and keeps a record of all of them to identify what needs work. And he emphasized speed in his swing over the past two years, giving him the length and the belief to compete with anyone.
Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris, who shared the 54-hole lead, each had a 2-shot lead at one point.
Hideki Matsuyama had the low round of the week at 65, but he finished at 3-under 277, and that was never going to be good enough. McIlroy had a 69 and finished in the group 4 shots behind with Collin Morikawa (66).
Fitzpatrick couldn't stop smiling as he carried off the trophy, big and silver and shiny like the U.S. Amateur prize, only far more meaningful. And there was another poignant moment at the end. His caddie, Billy Foster, one of the longest-serving and most popular loopers in Europe, removed the flag from the 18th pin. That's his trophy.
"Billy said it for a while to keep doing what you're doing and the chance will come," Fitzpatrick said. "It did, and I took it."
ESPN Stats & Information and The Associated Press contributed to this report.