Will Zalatoris was too young to know that the elderly man dispensing advice was a former U.S. Open champion. The man watched Zalatoris, then 6 years old, hit shots and showed him how to grip the club. Even at that young age, his talent and passion for the game were evident.
“This kid loves it," the man told Zalatoris' parents. "Your job is to stay out of the way."
The advice came from Ken Venturi, winner of the 1964 U.S. Open and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. This scene took place at the California Golf Club in San Francisco, where Venturi was a lifetime member and Zalatoris hit his first shots. Only when Zalatoris was old enough to enter the men’s grill, where Venturi’s U.S. Open trophy was displayed, did he realize the significance of the interaction.
On Saturday afternoons, Zalatoris played a five-hole loop at the course affectionately called the Cal Club. A stop at Orange Julius for a milkshake was always part of the drive home.
“It gave me the golf bug at a young age,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve been wanting to do this my entire life and now that I’m doing it, it’s pretty cool.”
This week, he arrives at his hometown event, the AT&T Byron Nelson, as the 30th-ranked player in the world. He’s weeks removed from a runner-up finish in his Masters debut – his second top-10 in a major this season – and in line to have his first PGA TOUR card later this year.
His rapid progression from a player who started 2019 without status on any tour to a major contender has been one of the year’s best stories and has earned the 24-year-old recognition as one of the game’s rising stars.
“He made it look easy,” said Justin Rose, who played with Zalatoris in Saturday’s final group at the Masters. “I like his game. I like the power that he has. He’s unfazed and he seems to have a good perspective on everything right now.”
The fact that he parlayed sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifiers into status first onto the Korn Ferry Tour and soon the PGA TOUR makes it easy to assume that Zalatoris arose out of anonymity. That’s hardly the case.
His iron play seems to be an innate gift that has impressed since he was young.
There’s a photo on the Internet of Zalatoris when he was about 5 years old. He’s just made impact with a ball and already displaying good fundamentals. His weight is shifted to his left side but his head is still behind the ball. His left wrist is flat and the face is square.
The Zalatoris family moved to Dallas a few years later, a move that exposed him to influences that would prepare him for this moment.
His first swing coach, David Price, had connections to two World Golf Hall of Famers; he was college roommates with Tom Kite and took lessons from Harvey Penick. Zalatoris quickly befriended other promising players whom you may have heard of, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler, as well as the sons of another Hall of Famer, Lanny Wadkins. And another member at Bent Tree, Scott Fawcett, has become one of the game’s top course-management consultants; he shared his early theories with Zalatoris, carried his bag in several of his amateur victories and had a long-lasting impact on how Zalatoris manages a course.
And, of course, there’s the former Cowboys quarterback who is his frequent playing partner.
Price kept those early lessons with Zalatoris simple, not so much to emulate Penick, his former coach, but because Zalatoris didn’t need much instruction. He did teach Zalatoris to practice with a purpose, something he saw his old roommate, one of golf’s pre-eminent grinders, do.
“His swing and his hand-eye coordination were so good that I didn’t have to do a lot of things to his swing,” Price said about Zalatoris.
Price had a drill where he would call out a shot shape – “low draw,” “high fade,” etc. – after Zalatoris started his swing. Zalatoris had to make the necessary adjustments mid-swing to produce the requested shot.
“At 12 years old, this little bugger could do it,” Price said.
That was the same age when Zalatoris shot a round that showed he was special.
He played the final 12 holes of his U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier in 9 under par to shoot 65 and qualify for the championship. Only a handful of players have qualified for that tournament at a younger age. That was in 2009, the year Spieth, who’s three years older than Zalatoris, won the first of his two U.S. Juniors. The pair used to car-pool to tournaments and Zalatoris still talks about the time Spieth set the course record at Bent Tree at 14 years old. After making a 25-footer for par on the first hole, he shot a front-nine 29 and signed for 63.
“We owe Jordan quite a bit for raising that bar for us at an early age,” Zalatoris said.
Spieth and Tiger Woods are the only players to win the U.S. Junior multiple times. Zalatoris shares a bit of history in that tournament with another legend. His five appearances are the most ever. It’s a record he shares with several players, including Jack Nicklaus.
While Spieth was known for holing out from all over the place, Zalatoris played a different game. His ball-striking was strong enough to make him an elite junior, but his putting struggles scared off some coaches.
Wake Forest’s Jerry Haas kept pursuing him, though. The high praise from Wadkins, a Wake Forest alum, helped. Haas, who had putting struggles of his own during his pro career, knew Zalatoris’ ball-striking, and his attitude, were too good to turn away from.
“My uncle, (former Masters champion) Bob Goalby, always said if you have a kid with a good grip and good fundamentals, he’ll get better,” Haas said. “Will was always very gracious when I showed up. He always sent me a thank-you email when I came to watch.”
Haas looked prescient during the summer of 2014, right before Zalatoris arrived at college. He won the U.S. Junior, Texas Amateur and Trans-Mississippi Amateur and made it to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur, vaulting into the top 10 of the world amateur rankings. Changing his course management helped Zalatoris capitalize on his physical skills.
Fawcett, who played on the Korn Ferry Tour after hitting it big in the Texas energy market, caddied for Zalatoris several times that summer. Fawcett used his finance and economics degrees from Texas A&M and the nascent Strokes Gained data to bring analytics to golf, helping players optimize their strategy. Zalatoris said he felt like he picked up a quarter-century of experience in Fawcett’s first four rounds on the bag.
Zalatoris still prides himself on being able to pick his spots.
“It’s just trying to give myself as many looks as possible,” Zalatoris said recently. “People will see me knock something tight, like on 17 (at Augusta National). I heard some comments of, ‘Wow, he’s firing at everything and it’s like, ‘I’m aiming 13 feet left of that flag and I pushed it 13 feet and it ends up being perfect.
“I don’t really tend to overdo things. I don’t need to hit the big, high fluttery 3-wood in there and try to knock it tight and make (eagle). I just tend to give myself a bunch of really good looks and make sure to put myself on the greens as fast as possible. And when the putter gets hot, the putter gets hot.”Will Zalatoris at the 2017 Walker Cup with Cameron Champ at Los Angeles Country Club. (Harrow How/Getty Images)
Zalatoris has benefitted from the latest and greatest in data and the wisdom of a World Golf Hall of Famer like Wadkins. It’s the best of both worlds.
While contending at the Masters, Zalatoris cited advice from Wadkins on how to handle the wind on the tiny, par-3 12th. “There’s little things he may not even remember telling me,” Zalatoris said. Wadkins, winner of the 1977 PGA and 1979 PLAYERS, was known for his strong iron play in his day and sees some of his game in Zalatoris.
“I’ve seen him hit very few shots that he was trying to hit too hard,” Wadkins said. “He isn’t afraid to hit the shot that’s called for. You can’t force it because the mistake on TOUR is always long. We played from the front edge to the front of the green
“Something my generation did well is manage the golf course. We played more. This generation, they practice. That’s why it takes some of these kids awhile to figure it out. If I hit balls when I was a kid, I had to pick them up. Who wants to do that?”
Zalatoris’ swing coach, Troy Denton, said Will “loves to play at a level very few people do.” Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, is a common playing partner, as is Davis Riley, a two-time winner on the Korn Ferry Tour this season. It’s a trait that served Will well when he turned pro because mini-tour events and Monday qualifiers were part of his journey to the PGA TOUR.
Zalatoris turned pro after playing in the 2017 Walker Cup alongside Collin Morikawa, Cameron Champ, Scheffler and several other TOUR players. He played a handful of events on sponsor exemptions before failing to advance out of Q-School in the fall of 2018.
There was no panic when he met with the coaches with whom he’d recently started working, Denton and Josh Gregory, to discuss his next steps.
“He already had a plan that he was willing to do whatever it took,” Gregory recalled. That included starts on the small All-Pro Tour, a far cry from the courses he saw during top-notch collegiate competition or his handful of TOUR starts. Fortunately, he played well enough in a handful of Korn Ferry Tour starts to have status by July 2019. The following year, he had a record-tying 11 consecutive top-20s on the Korn Ferry Tour after the season resumed from the coronavirus hiatus. That streak showed how his game had matured.
“I’ve played at that high level in different ways,” he said last year. “Some weeks where my ball-striking hasn’t been that great, I’ve saved it with the putter and other weeks I’ve driven it perfectly and given myself a lot of opportunities.”
His success on the Korn Ferry Tour earned him a start in last year’s U.S. Open. He made a hole-in-one in the first round and hit the flagstick on another par-3. He tied for sixth at Winged Foot with Dustin Johnson, who was coming off a torrid run through the FedExCup Playoffs. Three holes into the tournament, Zalatoris told his coaches that it felt like any other event.
“He just believes,” Gregory said.
Denton, who was roommates with Ryan Moore at UNLV, is a swing coach who also introduced Zalatoris to the arm-lock putter. Gregory works on the short game and, as a “performance coach,” develops the training plans that optimize Zalatoris’ practice. He often texts his student, “Just get better today.”
Said Zalatoris, “The task is always the same, no matter what tour or what event I’m playing in.”
Zalatoris’ discipline has helped him during the downturns in his career, like when he struggled with his putting or after his miss at Q-School left him without a tour to play on. The objective remains the same regardless of the situation. Gregory has a favorite story to illustrate that characteristic. It came at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play after Jason Kokrak birdied the final two holes to beat Zalatoris, 1 up.
Zalatoris headed straight to the putting green to do the same drills he does every day. He didn’t need a moment to let his anger dissipate.
“His simple response is, ‘It happened. I got beat. Let’s do the things that make me better,’” Gregory said. “The moment didn’t affect him.”