If you told Will Zalatoris two years ago that he’d be leaving Augusta National disappointed with a runner-up finish at the Masters, he’d likely have laughed in your face.
The 2014 US Junior Amateur Champion, who played on the 2017 US Walker Cup – a team that included the likes of Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Champ – turned professional in December that year and largely struggled, unable to hit the ground running as exemptions went awry before he missed out at the First Stage of Korn Ferry Q-School.
He decided to hit the reset button in 2018, finding his groove in mini-tours before retraining his eye for another crack at the Korn Ferry – the feeder tour to the Pearly Gates of the PGA Tour. This time the wiry swinger was successful, earning his stripes for 2019. But as Zalatoris made his way up and down the country fighting for scraps, a collegiate star like himself, Matthew Wolff won on just his third start at the 3M Open. In 2021, Wolff’s form has been on a downward spiral. Only Jon Rahm (16) has matched the number of top-10’s Zalatoris has enjoyed since earning his PGA Tour card for the 2020 season.
So, given the school of hard knocks Zalatoris has come through compared to a number of his Walker Cup teammates who transitioned to the PGA Tour untroubled, one as a Major champion in Morikawa, would he credit the bumps along the road for the player that left Augusta National disappointed after a second place finish on his Masters debut?
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Zalatoris, now 24. “This game is very fickle and it will — if you’re not mentally tough, it will get to you. Going through a full year and change of Monday qualifiers for the Korn Ferry and being unsuccessful and finally getting a couple that I qualified for and getting status on the Korn Ferry Tour and seeing guys on my Walker Cup Team being successful, it wasn’t frustrating.
“It was actually motivating and exciting because I knew I could do what they are doing. And even if I wasn’t playing at their level, I knew I was capable of doing what they were doing.
“It was a pretty rough first year as a pro. And like I’ve mentioned, I guess it was a little under two years ago I was sitting down with my coaches and my agent and talking about playing mini-tour events, and not even two years later frustrated that I was one shot short of winning the Masters. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
And if there were any young juniors out there inspired by the unflinching approach Zalatoris brought to the Cathedral in the Pines on Sunday, despite his relative inexperience to the field, it all started long before last week at Augusta, and long before he even turned pro.
It was at his home club of Bent Tree in Dallas where he came under the tutelage of instructor David Price, a teammate of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite at Texas. ‘DP’, sat down the young Zalatoris, clearly an eye-catching talent, though just 11-years young, and shared wisdom with the prodigious junior that has stood to him to this day.
“I mean, I was 11 years old, and he sat me down in his office and he said, ‘you know, I know you love playing the game, but if you want to be good at it, you have to work at it’,” Zalatoris explained. “As an 11-year-old, hearing somebody besides your parents basically say, ‘hey, you need to get to work and if you want to be good, you’ve got to go earn it’.
“I mean, our lesson, we’d schedule an hour — every lesson was two hours, minimum. He has always been a father figure on and off the golf course, and you know, he’s taught me so much. He was basically — obviously my parents will always say that they believed in me, but he was the first one that really pushed me to get to this level. He’s just an incredible man, and I’m pretty thankful for him.”
Zalatoris returns to action this week at the RBC Heritage. Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell are also in the field at Harbour Town.
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