Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 14, 2022

Will’s Wait For A Win Comes To An End

Barely sixteen months ago, only close followers of golf’s Korn Ferry Tour – and let’s be honest, that’s not a long list after excluding family members of the players on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit – would have responded with recognition at the mention of the name Will Zalatoris.  As a teenager, he won the U.S. Junior Amateur, and during three years at Wake Forest he was named the 2017 ACC Golfer of the Year and was a member of a U.S. Walker Cup team.  But like so many promising collegiate amateurs, Zalatoris struggled to make his mark after he left college one year early to turn professional.

He failed to make it past the first stage of the Korn Ferry’s qualifying school in the fall of 2018.  With no status on that Tour, the pursuit of his dream meant writing to tournament sponsors asking for exemptions while living a nomadic life driving from one event to the next, attempting to join that week’s field through Monday qualifying if his written pleas hadn’t elicited a favorable response.  It’s a hard road that has ended in disappointment and dashed dreams for countless young golfers, but the story took a happier turn for Zalatoris when he finished third at an event in July 2019.  That earned him a KFT card for the remainder of the year, and an eventual 60th place finish on the season-long Tour points standings won him full status for 2020. 

A KFT victory the following July propelled him to the top of the Tour’s points list, which in turn made him eligible for the 2020 U.S. Open and the occasional PGA Tour event.  Three top-10 finishes in the fall, at tournaments most of the big names typically bypass, earned Zalatoris a provisional card on the big tour.  More important, those results plus a tie for 10th at the 2021 Arnold Palmer Invitational moved him into the top 50 in the world rankings just before the final cutoff of that criteria for that spring’s Masters.

Which brings us to sixteen months ago, when Zalatoris first announced himself to millions of fans of the ancient game watching the drama unfold at Augusta National.  The 2021 Masters is remembered for Hideki Matsuyama’s becoming the first Japanese player to win a green jacket, and for his caddie’s symbolic salute to the golf course at the end of play.  But the second name on the leader board was the then unfamiliar one of Zalatoris, who nearly chased Matsuyama down with two late birdies, ultimately falling just one stroke short.  By season’s end Zalatoris was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year, but because he only had provisional status, he couldn’t play in the rich FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Still, Zalatoris was no longer an unknown when he started the final round of January’s Farmers Insurance Open tied for the lead with Jason Day.  Had those two been the only contenders, Zalatoris would have scored his first PGA Tour win that day, but Luke List stormed from five shots back to force sudden death, which he won with a birdie to Zalatoris’s par on the first playoff hole.  But that result did nothing to slow the rapid growth of the young golfer’s fan base, a burgeoning popularity due in equal measure to his ability to defy logic and his exquisite sense of timing.

Fans marvel at how far Zalatoris, who is ranked just outside the PGA Tour’s top-10 in driving distance, smacks the ball despite his stature.  He is officially listed as 6 feet 2 inches and 175 pounds.  While the vertical measurements are probably close to correct, the constant worry for fans of Zalatoris is that at some crucial moment on the course a stiff breeze will blow their spindly hero away.  For all the attention paid to Bryson DeChambeau’s massive weight gain in pursuit of greater distance, Zalatoris and others, like Rory McIlroy, are powerful if diminutive reminders that the physics of hitting a golf ball are not simply about mass.

Even more impressive is Zalatoris’s penchant for playing his best at golf’s most important times.  He followed that introductory runner-up finish at last year’s Masters with another top-10 at Augusta this spring, then was tied for the lead after 72 holes at the PGA Championship.  Justin Thomas prevailed in the playoff that day, but Zalatoris was back a month later at the Country Club, where Matt Fitzpatrick needed a shot for the ages from a fairway bunker on the final hole to edge him for the U.S. Open trophy.

The finish in Brookline gave Zalatoris four silver medals in his nascent PGA Tour career, with three of them coming at majors.  But victory still eluded him, and there can come a point in a golfer’s journey where the whispers begin, the quiet words among fans and pundits and fellow players wondering if perhaps this otherwise fine fellow is not quite up to the ultimate pressure of the Tour.  If those murmurs had not yet started about Zalatoris, who is, after all, still only 25, they probably were not far away.   

Now, thanks to a wild finish at this year’s first FedEx Playoff event, they are vanquished forever.  Zalatoris won the FedEx St. Jude Championship, overcoming a 2-shot deficit on 54-hole leader J.J. Spaun to finish tied with Sepp Straka, thanks to a clutch par putt on the final hole of regulation.  Zalatoris and Straka then matched each other through two holes of sudden death, before moving to the par-3 11th at TPC Southwind.  There Zalatoris hung his tee shot just right of the green, where it bounced like a ping pong ball on a stone wall next to the green before miraculously settling in a crevice between the stones and the rough.  Straka then fared even worse, rinsing his tee shot and sending his third into a bunker behind the green.

With Straka eventually on the green and facing a putt for double-bogey, Zalatoris wisely opted to pass on a high risk shot from his impossible lie, instead retreating to the drop area.  From there he lofted a wedge to six feet, then calmly rolled in the bogey putt for victory.  Weeping as he embraced his fiancé, Zalatoris and his many fans celebrated the culmination of a long, improbable journey.  Yet for all the emotion in the moment, most golf fans believe there are even greater triumphs ahead for Will Zalatoris. That is, if the wind doesn’t come up, and blow him away.


Responses

  1. Nice story, ended with a chuckle. Thanks!

    >

    • Thanks Don!


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