Nearing the end of a two-week break from tournament play that paused one of the hottest stretches of golf on the planet, 24-year-old Will Zalatoris has had a moment to appreciate where he is even if the journey is just beginning.
Sixteen months ago, Zalatoris had no status on any professional tour and was living life through Monday qualifiers.
Now the former Wake Forest All-American finds himself ranked 57th in the world (one spot ahead of a guy named Phil Mickelson) and on the verge of securing special temporary member status on the PGA Tour while sitting atop the Korn Ferry Tour regular-season points list.
“You never plan exactly what your journey will be. Had you asked me when I was 15 what my journey would look like, it’s not remotely close to what it’s been,” Zalatoris said by phone recently.
When professional golf and everything else stopped due to the pandemic in mid-March, Zalatoris had posted a pair of top-10 finishes in his first full season on the Korn Ferry Tour. He was in position to earn one of the 25 PGA Tour cards awarded each year to the top Korn Ferry players, but that plan took a detour when a chunk of the season was canceled and the decision was made to extend the season through late 2021.
Among the disruptions and distress caused by COVID-19, Zalatoris found a silver lining in the time he spent at home in Dallas, Texas, where he rooms with Davis Riley, another top player on the Korn Ferry Tour. With nothing to do but play golf – carrying his own bag for a time at Maridoe Golf Club in Carrollton – Zalatoris made the most of regular matches with Riley and former NFL quarterback Tony Romo
“Our range was closed so there was nothing to do but go be a kid again,” Zalatoris said.
“There’s a lot to be said for that. You can be on the range trying to find the secret but there’s something to just going out and playing.”
At the end of 2019, Zalatoris was frustrated. He had narrowly missed getting his PGA Tour card through the Korn Ferry finals, having missed the cut on the number in the first two playoff events. A stroke here, a stroke there would have changed his career path.
“I guess confidence is the right word but now I feel like I can compete against anybody.” – Will Zalatoris
He found himself making the same mistakes over and over.
With his swing coach, Troy Denton, and Josh Gregory, who helps with his short game and putting, Zalatoris did an aggressive self-evaluation. He also settled on an arm-lock putting style similar to what fellow Wake Forest alum Webb Simpson uses.
“I said I want to understand myself better,” Zalatoris said. “I want to be able to fix myself. Instead of it taking three weeks to fix something, I want it to take three days. That could be the difference in making a cut or two and getting my card or not.
“It’s great having an idea and seeing it through. It’s really been satisfying.”
At home during the break, Zalatoris knew he was onto something. When tournament play resumed in June, he was primed.
Since then he’s had a victory and seven other top-10 finishes on the Korn Ferry Tour, ending the 2020 portion of the season atop the points list.
In four PGA Tour starts, Zalatoris has finished T6 at the U.S. Open, T8 in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship and T5 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas.
At Winged Foot, Zalatoris led the field in strokes gained on approach and his ace at the par-3 seventh hole was among the week’s highlights. The $424,040 Zalatoris won at the U.S. Open exceeded his $403,978 in earnings while leading the Korn Ferry Tour.
In all, Zalatoris has 11 top-10 finishes in his past 15 starts.
“When I first turned pro, I knew where my game was. I knew my first year (after Wake Forest) would be an initiation by fire even though I held the lead at Pebble Beach in my third start as a pro,” said Zalatoris, who was a member of the victorious 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team that included Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Champ.
“I guess confidence is the right word but now I feel like I can compete against anybody.”
With a T69 or better next week at the Bermuda Championship, Zalatoris will have earned enough FedEx Cup points to earn temporary membership on the PGA Tour, allowing him to accept an unlimited number of sponsor exemptions. He figures he can make more than 20 PGA Tour starts that way, likely securing his full status along the way.
“The job is still not done,” Zalatoris said.
Top: Will Zalatoris has 11 top-10 finishes in his past 15 starts. Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images
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