Will Zalatoris learned a lot about his game during his forced time off, and got his fill of Netflix, too
Will Zalatoris reacts after making a putt on the 18th green to force a playoff with Sepp Straka in the 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship.
Will Zalatoris made several discoveries during the 100 or so days he wasn’t able play golf last year. The 26-year-old Texan withdrew during the third round of the BMW Championship with a back injury on Aug. 20. That came only a week after securing his first PGA Tour win at the FedEx St. Jude Championship. After the WD, Zalatoris announced an extended break from competitive golf, which saw him miss the Tour Championship, Presidents Cup and the tour’s fall events to rehabilitate two herniated discs. The Dallas-based Zalatoris said he didn’t resume playing and practicing until Dec. 1.
One of the discoveries Zalatoris made was of no use to his game. “I found the end of Netflix,” Zalatoris said Tuesday ahead of his event debut at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
Another revelation, though, was helpful. He realized it was possible to get over the frustration of three runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour last year—two of which came in major championships—by simply having time off. While inside the bubble on the PGA Tour, Zalatoris was constantly reminded of his three second-place results: playoff losses to Luke List at Torrey Pines and to Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship, as well as a joint runner-up to Matt Fitzpatrick at the U.S. Open.
“I’ve been so close so many times … if anything, after having time, off it’s hard to remind myself of all the second places,” said Zalatoris, who had the most prize money and best World Ranking of anyone without a PGA Tour win until he broke through in Memphis in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Will Zalatoris, practicing earlier this week at Kapalua, hasn't played a PGA Tour event since withdrawing in the third round of the BMW Championship in August.
Zalatoris also learned a lot about his body with the help of instructor and swing mechanics expert Dr. Greg Rose. “Probably more than I ever wanted to [learn],” Zalatoris joked. Mainly, that his right hip had fallen out of alignment despite his powerful swing helping him rank No. 1 on tour last season for strokes gained/approach and also in the tee-to-green category.
“We spent a lot of time understanding the pressures of my golf swing and understanding how I push off my right side, and I do it later than a lot of guys,” Zalatoris said. “So, what that does for someone with a lot of side bend is it gets my right hip high, and my spine is tilted back. Dr. Rose said, ‘Duh, no wonder you had a back issue.’ But it’s a good thing that it was just a motor pattern as opposed to something that was structurally wrong, because [motor pattern] is something that you can fix [easily].”
In response, Zalatoris has made minor swing changes to his setup, which are designed to give his swing “longevity.”
“I’m trying to get more centered [at address], as opposed to having the ball forward [in my stance] with more spine tilt at address,” he said. “[I’ll try to have] more of a turn as opposed to kind of a lateral shift.”
Despite the time off, Zalatoris appeared refreshed. If anything, he said the injury was a blessing in disguise, as it facilitated more clubhead speed. He is currently playing a 45½-inch driver but hasn’t lost any clubhead speed. “Once I go back to the 46-[inch driver], I'll actually [see a] net [increase] in speed with my original gamer. I’m more efficient in my golf swing because of the efficiency with how I now push into the golf ball.”
From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten: Most golf fans are familiar with Kapalua Golf Club’s Plantation Course, home of the PGA Tour's opening event each year. Located on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui, the Plantation was built from open, windswept pineapple fields on the pronounced slope of a volcano and is irrigated by sprinklers pressured solely by gravity. As the first design collaboration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, it unveiled their joint admiration for old-style courses. The blind drive on the fourth, the cut-the-corner drives on the fifth and sixth are all based on tee shots found at National Golf Links. So, too, are its punchbowl green and strings of diagonal bunkers. It's also a massive course, built on a huge scale, Coore says, to accommodate the wind and the slope and the fact that it gets mostly resort play. So it's a big course.
But what sets it apart in my mind are the little things. When I played the course years ago with Coore, it took only one hole for me to appreciate one of its subtleties. We were on the tee of the par-3 second, an OK hole but nothing riveting, nothing like the canyon-carry par-3 eighth or the ocean-backdropped par-3 11th. The second sits on a rare flat portion of the property. The green sits at a diagonal, angling left to right, and there's a string of bunkers staggering up the right side of the green. I suppose a lot of present-day architects would not have placed that forwardmost bunker on the hole, in the interests of playability for high-handicap resort golfers. But most of the old-time architects probably would have used such carry bunkers, especially in the days before irrigation, when greens were hard as a rock and every approach shot had to be bounced aboard. Another reason why studying the history of architecture might just help your score.
Zalatoris improving his ball-striking is a likely scary proposition for his peers, especially if he can improve his putting from last season’s strokes-gained rank of 103. Perhaps that’s the key to breaking through for a major victory, having finished in the top 10 at three of the four last year.
“Everything feels really good; we’re just [going to] keep doing what we’re doing and let the next win [happen],” he said.
For now, Zalatoris will reap one of the benefits of winning on the PGA Tour—playing this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions at the picturesque Plantation Course at Maui’s Kapalua Resort. The tournament has historically been exclusive to the 30 or so winners from the previous year on the PGA Tour, but this year it was extended to players who made it to the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake. It has also been elevated in status to now boast a $15 million purse, of which $2.7 million will go to the winner.
“It’s pretty cool to be with all the champions from the past year and obviously the guys who made it to East Lake,” Zalatoris said. “This is the best of the best. It's fun being here playing against the best competition in the world.”