BROOKLINE, Mass. – Will Zalatoris has a pair of runner-up finishes in majors.
The first was “a change of life.”
The second was “affirmation.”
As for a potential third party, Zalatoris would rather make a better one. After finishing second to Hideki Matsuyama at last year’s Masters as a special temporary member of the PGA Tour and following a playoff loss to Justin Thomas at last month’s PGA Championship, Zalatoris is poised to break through in a major championship.
“The first Masters, for me, was very special and changed my life, and to be able to do it again, it was an affirmation, and it gave me the belief that I can be one of the best players in the world,” Zalatoris said Wednesday after to play the last nine at The Country Club. “There is a difference in thinking about it because everyone thinks they are the best players in the world and you have to think that to play here in general. But now I believe much more in myself and in my game. So that’s why it’s just, keep doing what I’m doing and the first one will get in the way.”
It’s no surprise that the 25-year-old Zalatoris is on a short list of favorites to win this week’s US Open. Although he has yet to win a major title, his game is designed for the most difficult tests. His ball striking is beyond the elite as he leads the Tour in strokes gained – Focus after qualifying seventh last season. His driver is also up there with the best in the world, which currently ranks him second in strokes gained: from tee to green.
US Open full field scores
That skill set has already led to five top-10 finishes in eight major appearances for the Wake Forest product.
“With my ball shots, if I hit good golf shots and put the ball in the right places, I don’t have to work as hard,” Zalatoris said. “The harder the golf course, the better for me.”
Zalatoris short game coach Josh Gregory added, “He’s so smart. He knows where to put the golf ball, so he rarely gets into a bad spot.”
And in terms of current form, Zalatoris has arguably never played better with six T-6 finishes or better in 11 starts this year, having risen from No. 34 in the world rankings late last year to No. 14 now.
Zalatoris admits he started forcing the issue after his breakout last year at Augusta National. Lost court of him at Torrey Pines last June was a microcosm of the negative effect of unrealistic domestic expectations. In his words, he “worked harder than ever.”
“And I got injured,” said Zalatoris, who had to withdraw from last summer’s Open Championship due to a back problem, which hampered him for a couple of months.
Now, Zalatoris is not only healthy, he is stronger and much better mentally. Instead of worrying about winning his card or trying to get that elusive first PGA Tour win or boosting his Ryder Cup stock, Zalatoris has matured enough to know those things come with good golf and over time.
“I went back to the attitude of playing with the house money,” he said.
The near win at Southern Hills validated that mental work. But how can Zalatoris take that final step? As expected, he is on the greens.
Zalatoris has faced a lot of criticism for his putting since joining the Tour. He was T-122 in strokes gained: putting last season and sits at 166the right now in that category.
But as Gregory argues, Zalatoris’ mechanics continue to improve, and if strokes gained were tabulated across the Masters, WGC-Match Play and Zurich Classic, Zalatoris’ -0.227 number would be positive.
“When you get to strokes gained at the level of your putting, you can be the best player in the world,” Gregory said.
To achieve that distinction, Zalatoris works with Gregory in training as the number 1 putter on the Tour. Especially for the important weeks. For example, if Zalatoris is doing a putting drill in which he hits putts from different distances, Gregory will require Zalatoris to earn 15% more than the Tour average before he can progress through the drill.
The preparation paid off in the Southern Hills, where Zalatoris took 10th placethe in strokes gained: putt (1,161). Country Club greens are certainly much more severe, with 5 to 9 feet per par guaranteed to be common, but Gregory argues that, like difficult tee-to-green setups, that plays right into Zalatoris’s hands.
“He’s at his best when he’s an artist when he’s kicking,” Gregory said. “He’s at his best when he’s looking at slopes and using his imagination.”
Zalatoris, a Bay Area native, adds that Poa annua’s greens don’t hurt his chances, either.
“It’s like Plinko,” Zalatoris said. “You’re going to make good putts that bounce off the line, but that’s the nature of the beast.”
That same thought process could be applied to Zalatoris’ overall approach. He’s had good weeks in the past, even in the majors, and he hasn’t lost one yet. But eventually, some are bound to fall their way.
And come Sunday, Zalatoris hopes that will finally be the case.