AUGUSTA, Ga. — He has seemingly come out of nowhere. The truth, though, is Will Zalatoris has always been there. He just took a more anonymous route.
Zalatoris, 24, didn’t win the Masters on Sunday, but he made it interesting for a time. That he gave himself a chance in his rookie appearance at Augusta National is revelatory, but only if you are not aware of his strong backstory and recent surge of success over the past year.
“I’m not very surprised; I know some of y’all are,” said Scottie Scheffler who has been playing golf with Zalatoris since their junior days. “I’ve been saying for years … we’ve been playing against each other since we were 8 years old. He’s one of the best ball-strikers I’ve ever seen. Any week in which he can just get a few putts to fall, you’re going to see him up there on the leaderboard.”
Zalatoris shot 2-under-par 70 on Sunday, with only a brief early back-nine blip keeping him from putting more pressure on Hideki Matsuyama, who became the first Japanese male to win a major championship. Zalatoris, with birdies on two of his last four holes, finished just one stroke back to assure himself a spot in the 2022 Masters and further bolster ascension in the Official World Golf Ranking.
The former Wake Forest player is doing all this despite not being a full-time member of the PGA Tour. He earned his way into the U.S. Open in September based on his standing on the Korn Ferry Tour — the PGA Tour’s developmental tour — where he had posted 11 consecutive top-20 finishes. He made good on the U.S. Open appearance, finishing tied for sixth at Winged Foot. He hasn’t looked back.
“Absolute dream,” Zalatoris said after shooting scores of 70-68-71-70. “To be in a situation … I’ve been dreaming about it for 20 years. I thought I did a really good job this week of just enjoying the moment, but not letting it get to me.
“I think I kind of let everything soak in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then back to work on Thursday. So it was an absolute treat, and obviously to come up one short and be disappointed is motivating but obviously very exciting.”
Two years ago, Zalatoris was ranked 1,514th in the world. When the 2020-21 PGA Tour began in September, he had no status. He had been playing in the developmental Korn Ferry Tour in 2020, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was no Qualifying Tournament last fall.
But he had that U.S. Open exemption. And that finish at Winged Foot meant everything. It led to more starts, mostly via sponsor exemptions. And coming into the Masters, he had already earned special temporary status for this season, meaning he could accept unlimited invites. Prior to the Masters, he had earned 647 points, which would put him 32nd on the FedEx Cup points list.
“I wanted to be on this stage basically my entire life,” he said.
In two major championship starts as a pro, Zalatoris now has a tie for sixth and a second. He is 27th in the world.
“It’s great to see,” said Webb Simpson, who, like Zalatoris, is a Wake Forest grad. “He’s been playing phenomenal golf. I think it’s a testament for a lot of guys who don’t have status just to see that it can be done with six months of really good play. I’ve heard he’s been a great player for a long time. Not a big surprise to me.”
Of course, first-timers are not supposed to do this. Fuzzy Zoeller is the only player to win the tournament — aside from the first two years in 1934 and 1935 — in his first attempt.
Zoeller did so in 1979, getting into a playoff when Ed Snead bogeyed the final three holes. Zoeller birdied the second extra hole to win over Snead and Tom Watson.
Nobody has pulled off that feat in 42 years. Spieth came close in 2014, finishing second before winning the next year. And others have flirted with the top spot as a rookie, only to come up short.
“I’ve played a lot of golf with him over the last year, year and a half,” said Spieth, the 2015 Masters winner who tied for third this year. “Having seen him progress and his confidence level just continue to progress over the last year and a half, I’m not surprised. It is very difficult this weekend to come out in the position he was in in the final group on Saturday. It’s just a different feeling.
“Then, in this wind, to control his high ball flight and to make putts on these greens when you don’t see other greens like this, especially in windy conditions, I thought it’s extremely impressive.”
There is a lot to like about Zalatoris. Despite his slight frame — he is listed at 6-foot-2, 165 pounds — he seemingly hits the ball forever. And he’s got an exemplary iron game; he was second to Spieth for the week in greens in regulation with 53 out of 72.
And he enjoyed every step.
“It was a pretty cool,” he said. “If you look at the cameras every single day when I cross the bridge on 12, I look back, because my day told me, “Look back and enjoy it because it’s a view that you don’t really get.’ The fact that you’re doing this in the Masters, that’s your point to reflect on how cool it is to be here.”