Zalatoris’ ball-striking earned him the 2021 Arnold Palmer Award
March 01, 2022
By Justin Ray, Twenty First Group, PGATOUR.COM
Will Zalatoris' best shots from the 2020-21 season
Last April, casual sports fans were introduced in grand fashion to wiry Will Zalatoris.
Zalatoris had all phases of his game clicking in his Masters debut: he ranked fourth in the field that week in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, second in greens in regulation (73.6%) and fifth in Strokes Gained: Putting. His solo runner-up finish was the best by a player in his Masters debut since Dan Pohl in 1982.
But golf fans in the know had been attuned to Zalatoris’ ascent for some time. In each of his first five Korn Ferry Tour starts after the pandemic hiatus, Zalatoris finished T6 or better. In the extended 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour season, Zalatoris ranked first in scoring average, ball striking and the all-around ranking. A T6 at the U.S. Open in the fall of 2020 further cemented Zalatoris’ status as a name on the rise.
Zalatoris played his way off the Korn Ferry Tour months earlier than anticipated and propelled himself to the Arnold Palmer Award, given to the TOUR’s top rookie, in 2021. Just how good has Zalatoris been in his young pro career, and why has he exceled? Twenty First Group dove into the numbers.
Elite Ball Striker
There are 177 players with 50 or more rounds measured by PGA TOUR ShotLink since the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot began. Among that group, Zalatoris has generated some of the most impressive and consistent tee-to-green statistics.
He ranks fourth in Strokes Gained: Approach, trailing only Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Paul Casey. He’s fifth in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, narrowly behind reigning FedExCup champion Patrick Cantlay in that statistic. He’s sixth in Strokes Gained: Ball Striking in that span, a statistic that isolates performance off the tee and on approach shots.
When narrowing the focus to just this season, the numbers are even more impressive. Zalatoris leads the TOUR in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (1.93) and Strokes Gained: Approach (1.22) per round. He’s currently ninth in greens in regulation (74.6%) and has more than doubled his amount of Strokes Gained: Around the Green per round so far this season compared to last.
Improvement on the greens could elevate Zalatoris into superstardom: so far this season, he’s making below the TOUR average on putts from 4-8 feet, inside 10 feet and from 10-15 feet.
|Most Strokes Gained: Approach Per Round Since 2020 U.S. Open|
|*Minimum 50 measured rounds in span|
One way of measuring a player’s ability to assemble rounds that separate him or her from the competition is to look at the percentage of the time he gains a large amount of strokes against the field in one specific discipline. For example, players gain a full stroke or more over the field with their approach shots about 27% of the time overall. Collin Morikawa, however, does that 55% of the time. Morikawa is the PGA TOUR leader in Strokes Gained: Approach over the last two seasons, at 1.13 per round.
Zalatoris has flashed the ability to separate himself from the field via his approach play over the last two seasons. He gains more than one stroke with his approach play in 41.7% of his rounds since the beginning of last season, the fifth-highest rate on TOUR in that span. Zalatoris has gained three or more strokes on the field with his approach play in 9.2% of his rounds – that is more than three times the TOUR average (3.0%) over the last 2 seasons.
|Highest Percentage of Rounds With 3+ Strokes Gained: Approach - Last 2 Seasons|
|*Minimum 40 measured rounds in span|
Long Iron Advantage
The best players in the world are able to make marginal gains over the field in myriad ways. One of the key places where Zalatoris makes those gains is on long approach shots, where he is consistently better than the competition.
Over the last two seasons, Zalatoris is ranked 11th on the PGA TOUR in average proximity on approach shots outside 200 yards. Will’s average of 46 feet, 7 inches from that range may not seem overwhelming on the surface, but consider this: that’s more than 6 feet better than the PGA TOUR average.
From 175-200 yards away, he’s more than 2 feet better than the TOUR average over the last two seasons. Breaking it down to shots from 200-225 yards out, he’s 4 feet, 5 inches better than the average. These add up over the course of a tournament, especially at a place like Bay Hill Club & Lodge, a venue that has yielded more approaches from outside 200 yards than any other PGA TOUR venue over the last 5 seasons.
Due for a Breakthrough?
The PGA TOUR has seen a wave of first-time winners early in 2022. Four of the last five winners on TOUR have been first-timers, the first time we have seen that happen since the fall of 2017. This is the first calendar year in which there were four first-time winners before March 1st since all the way back in 2002. It’s not unprecedented for a first-time winner to emerge from the traditionally strong fields at Bay Hill, as both Matt Every (2014) and Tyrrell Hatton (2020) have claimed their maiden PGA TOUR titles at this tournament in recent years.
With underlying metrics that predict big-time success, that breakthrough win could come this week for Zalatoris.