Will Zalatoris Closes In on the Major Championship Season Back on the Rise
03 Mar,2024 Credit : Warren Little - Getty Images

By Tim Liotta


Will Zalatoris Closes In on the Major Championship Season Back on the Rise

For Will Zalatoris, the climb back to the top of the major championship mountain continues to pick up speed.

Sidelined for more than a half-year in 2023, less than 100 percent for another eight months before that, Zalatoris has posted PGA Tour finishes progressing from missing the cut by 7 shots (Sony Open), to T34 (American Express), to T13 (Farmers Insurance), to a T2 at the Genesis Invitational. 

Statistically, he jumped from Farmers, where his strokes-gained rankings were 23rd off-the-tee, 38th on approach, 25th around-the-green, and 26th putting, to the Genesis, where he ranked 15th off-the-tee, 4th on approach, 14th around-the-green, and 14th putting. 

"Every week I've been getting better, so I knew I just got to keep doing what I'm doing," Zalatoris said after the Genesis Invitational. "I've got a lot of silver in my house so getting another second place doesn't really sit that well, but obviously coming back from what I had to go through physically, you know, we're in the right direction. 

"The goal (Sunday), this is really good preparation for the majors coming up. It's nice to be able to work on these changes when I'm in contention. You know, fully commit to what I'm doing."

The silver Zalatoris refers to came with the three second-place finishes he's compiled in the first 10 major championships he has competed in.

At the Masters, Zalatoris finished second a shot back of Hideki Matsuyama in 2021, and T6 after a final-round, 5-under-par 67 in 2022. Last year, Zalatoris never made it to the first tee at Augusta National. More on that later.  

In 2022, Zalatoris put together back-to-back seconds in the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open. He was outplayed by Justin Thomas in a three-hole playoff in the PGA at the Southern Hills Country Club, then came up one shot sort of Matt Fitzpatrick in the U.S. Open at the Country Club. Zalatoris had a 14-foot putt on the 18th hole to tie Fitzpatrick and force a playoff. 

"With about six feet to go, I thought I had it," Zalatoris said afterward. "It stings obviously. Obviously to have three runner-ups so far in my career in majors, but keep knocking on that door. ... I'd pay a lot of money for about an inch and a half, and I'd probably be a three-time major champion at this point."

Two months later, Zalatoris would win his first PGA Tour title, the FedEx St. Jude Championship, only to be forced to withdraw from the BMW Championship a week later with what was later diagnosed as a pair of herniated discs. 

"When I came back in January (2023) I still didn't really feel 100 percent," Zaloris said at the Hero Challenge last November. "I tried probably to change a little too much in what I was doing and kind of got away from my DNA of who I am as a golfer.

"The other kind of the mental side of it, too, I had been on kind of cruise control of two years of just this steady progression, being in contention at majors, I think not really giving myself the time to fully kind of appreciate kind of where I was physically."

Trying to combine rest with a swing change, Zalatoris made eight PGA Tour starts over the first four months of 2023, posting a T11 at the Sentry Tournament of Championships in January, and a fourth-place finish at the Genesis Invitational in February. However, in April, Zalatoris found out "a golfer's worse nightmare is feeling your back giving out on the driving range at Augusta 30 minutes before your tee time."

Will Zalatoris - Major Championship Record

Instead of competing in 2023's first major, Zalatoris underwent a microdiscectomy that forced him to shut everything down from a physical standpoint.

"I think when I go from ramping up to Augusta, hurt my back on Thursday and then Saturday I'm already having surgery, it's a big swing of emotions," he said. "I think the first five, six weeks was probably the hardest."

At the Hero Challenge in November, where Zalatoris returned to competitive play, he met with the media prior to the tournnament and was asked: "Will, was there ever a point where you were finding the end of Netflix and watching a lot of television and laid up where you thought, my goodness, have I already done what I'm going to do, is this it?"

"I do have some more subscriptions that I didn't have before, that's for sure, but I ended up getting my degree (in pychology from Wake Forest) over the summer, so I stayed busy," Zalatoris said. " Once I was able to travel, and in my wife's brilliance when I was sitting in the hospital bed, she asked the doctor, hey, when's he going to be able to travel, and he said about two to three months. 

"So we did a bunch of bucket list stuff (a trip to Wimbledon was the highlight). When you're 27, 28 and don't have kids at home and you've got six months off, you know, we did a bunch of fun stuff, so I stayed busy for sure. My mind was always on my game, for sure. It's been a long, weird year. 2023 was a bad 

movie, but so far things are progressing nicely."

Rehab would test the patience of this still-27-year-old from the start, even more so after he was able to return to the golf course. 

"I think it was probably in the two and a half, three month range of when I was actually able to go out and like be productive and practice," Zalatoris said. "But like I said, it was just such a slow build-up. One of the more frustrating things was actually I was told I can't play more than three days in a row. I think this was at maybe month five. I had shot like 63-65-64 at home and I was like the last thing I want to do is not play golf tomorrow, especially with the months that I had leading up to that."

The surgery Zalatoris underwent was similar to what Tiger Woods had gone through years earlier. However, Zalatoris's physical makeup has turned him into an outlier. 

"The surgery that I had actually was a huge benefit in the sense that I didn't really - like really thin, wiry people, they don't have a lot of room in their back typically. I had had like some stuff that had popped up, your body tries to heal it, which that ends up putting in less space. So clearing all that stuff out, you know," Zalatoris said. "I'm probably one of the only people that's gone through back surgery and has actually had better range of motion. It was the stability coming back that was really the hard part."

Despite his improved range of motion, Zalatoris has modified his move into the golf ball. 

"I had always had a big reverse C in my golf swing, he said. " Well, the reality is now I'm way more rotational and way more horizontal with what I do as opposed to being more up and down.

Like I said, it's more - it's just simplifying stuff. It's not changing moves, it's not changing what I'm doing, it's just, you know, think it through, left heel off the ground with a bunch of side bend, that just does not end up to feeling very good on your back.

"So really like the one thing that, you know, Troy Denton, my coach, and I have worked on is keep that left heel on the ground. Having the left heel up at impact, yeah, maybe you might 

get a couple more miles an hour ball speed, but the part I've kind of enjoyed about it is I'm driving it straighter even though it might be 10 yards shorter. I think my best year on Tour I 

was 150th in fairways hit, so anything I could do better on that end by far."

Zalatoris, who reached No. 9 in the Official World Golf Rankings with his 2022 U.S. Open finish, may have the same look standing on a tee, walking down a fairway or doing just about anything on the course, he takes a totally new tack pre- and post-round. 

"Even then through 2022, my best year so far, the third week I was still needing treatment, needing 

some rehab," he said. "So now having a much better understanding of my body and knowing what it takes, like today even just playing nine holes, probably did two hours of work. It's really not as much about the warm-up pre-round as it is the post-round stuff just because if I go play golf for three days in a row, or if any of us do it, you might get a little change in your posture or whatever.

"Well, the difference is for me, you know, when I was in college I could just go play 14 days in a row and didn't matter. I played seven in a row my first year out on Tour and didn't have any issues."

Despite four rounds over Riviera Country Club last month that required Hideki Matsuyama to shoot a course-record, final-round, 9-under-par 62 to keep him from the winner's circle, Zalatoris still claims to be a work-in-progress. 

"It's still a conscious effort. Even though I've had some pretty good rounds and some nice stretches this week, it's still - compared to '22 when I was kind of just putting things in cruise control and contending in majors, there's still pretty big changes," he said. " I used to time things up with my hands really well throughout the golf swing, but it wasn't really that great on my back. Now I'm a lot more rotary, swinging more horizontal. Got both feet kind of flared out, which helps with not kind of locking up both hips so I can get a bigger turn. 

"I feel really good physically, most importantly, but like I said, it's just going to take a little bit of time to get used to it."

The other big change that Zalatoris is still getting used to is the switch to the broomstick putter that Lucas Glover rode to a pair of victories in 2023, and several other PGA Tour pros have adopted with success.

"I had five months (practicing with the broomstick) before I was able to hit balls," Zalatoris said. "Really just being able to go out and just kind of screw around with it, it probably took three to four months to kind of figure out the blueprint for it. 

"It's just so simple. I get my setup correct and make sure my eyes are over the ball and just rock the shoulders. That's something that simple is really good. 

"And that's the same thing with the full swing. Even though there's changes, it's just simplicity. We don't need to overwork or overthink things, it's just commit to what we're doing 

and see what it adds up to."