Two years ago, Will Zalatoris was a relative unknown in the golf world - at least for those who don't follow the college game. After failing to earn his Korn Ferry Tour card, the then-21-year-old took a few months away from competition to work on his game.
When he came back, Zalatoris emerged as one of the best players in the world rising up to No. 29 in the latest world golf rankings. In his past three major appearances, he's finished top-10 in all three with a second-place finish at the Masters.
I had the chance to sit down with Will ahead of the 2021 U.S. Open in an interview presented by Gillette.
The Spun: Two years ago you’re 1,500th in the world rankings with no status and playing Monday qualifiers. Now you’re 29th in the world with three top-10s in three major appearances. What changed?
Will Zalatoris: I wish I could give you some really cool answer, but it’s really been the same thing I’ve been working on with Josh for the last two years. Basically, I guess it was in December of 2019 I had just missed getting my card for the Korn Ferry Tour playoffs. I had missed two cuts on the number and just barely missed another one. All I needed to do was make one of those cuts and have a halfway decent week and I would have been close to getting my card that way. So I kinda of had to sit on that for 3-4 months and kinda of ponder that and I basically just sat down with my coaches and said I want to understand my golf game better. I want to be able to fix myself, because that could be the difference between getting my PGA Tour card and not getting my tour card. I ended up have a couple months off to really work on some things and understand my game better and then COVID hit and I had four months off again to even do it more. I think from then on it’s kind of been full throttle. So I wish I could give you some really cool answer about how, you know, I changed this or changed that, but it’s really just been a two-year process.
TS: Were there ever doubts that you made the wrong decision to turn pro before your senior year after your early struggles at Q School?
WZ: No, the part that was funny was that the Q-School that I missed on the first stage I had strep throat. Just one of those where it was kind of like, ‘really this is the week?” I hadn’t been sick all year and this is the week I end up getting sick. I fought like hell and didn’t get through, but from that point on I was basically like, ‘well, I’m going to have to play muni tour events now and this is going to be a long process, so just stick it out and stay as patient as you can.’ I didn’t really regret it. I mean I learned a lot in those starts and got to play in a U.S. Open and get a taste of Shinnecock Hills so I don’t regret it, but first year out as a pro was definitely a learning curve.
TS: You’re one of the best iron players on the PGA Tour, regularly gaining strokes on approach. But what is the one part of your game you’d like to improve the most?
WZ: Yeah I’ve been a very up and down putter this year. Which after last year on the Korn Ferry Tour it was one of the best part of my game. This year it’s been a little up and down. I think Colonial is a good one because I was like +2.8 on the first day and then the next day I was like -1.5 strokes gained putting and then I was around even for the next two days. So I think it’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re super close, I mean I finished I think it was second in strokes gained putting at Augusta. I just need to make it a little more consistent. The bads just can’t be as bad if I want to go win these golf tournaments. But we’re close. These last two weeks have been really good
TS: The Ryder Cup is just a few months away. Golf fans are clamoring for Steve Stricker to make you one of the captains picks. You’ve played arguably the best golf of anyone who might be picked ahead of you. Are you putting any extra emphasis on trying to make the team?
WZ: I’m trying not to. Here’s the part that’s so funny. Six months ago I thought I was going to be spending another year on the Korn Ferry Tour and now we’re sitting here talking about me possibly being on a Ryder Cup team. So, you know, over the last two years my mission and what Josh has texted me every day is ‘just get better today.’ Just keep working on the stuff you’ve been working on and one of these days you’ll be holding one of these trophies. My time and my energy is more invested in working on my putting or my bunker game or my iron play as opposed to thinking about or nagging Steve Stricker like, ‘hey, can I play a practice round with you this week?’ I know if I just go play good golf the rest of that will take care of itself. There’s no higher honor as an American golfer than being on a Ryder Cup team and obviously I would love to be a part of it.
TS: Despite your stellar play over the past seven months you’re still ineligible for the FedEx Cup. Do you think the rules need to be tweaked to reward players for their success?
WZ: Yeah, I mean, my situation is a little different than guys like Jordan [Spieth] and Viktor [Hovland] and all of those guys that have come before me and got special temporary status. Without COVID I would have had my card, you know, if you think of it that way. I haven’t taken any free handouts I’ve gone out and earned it. So it’s just a different situation, there’s no question about it. The reality is, the way I fix that is go out and play good golf. And that’s okay. Jordan went out and won one, Collin went out and won one, you know guys have gone out anddone it. The bar has been set and I know what I need to do. So I know that I could finish second every tournament from here until the end of the regular season and it doesn’t really do anything besides maybe help me with the Ryder Cup or the world ranking or whatever. I want to be playing [on the PGA Tour] in December. I don’t want to go do the Race to Dubai, I’d rather stay here in the States and go chase the FedEx Cup.
TS: Alright time to put you on the spot. You’ve played against Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler for years. Which one of you is the best?
WZ: Well, Jordan was three years older than us so he smoked us for, I mean, this is no lie this is the honest truth. The U.S. Open this past year was the first tournament I ever beat Jordan Spieth in. So I’ve had a lot of getting my tailed kicked in by him for, basically my entire life, so it felt pretty good.
TS: Is it good to see him back in form and playing at the top of his game again?
WZ: It’s the best. He’s just such a great guy, teaching Scottie and I little things and helping our learning curves. On top of that he’s exciting to watch. When we’re playing little games here at home it’s not exciting to play against him, but it’s a great challenge. I could go out and shoot 66 against him and maybe not win, which it’s fun that way because it makes me a better golfer. He’s such a great guy and it frustrates me more that he’s such a nice guy and then he goes out and beats mine and Scottie’s brains in every now and again. It would be better if he was a jerk, but he’s just not.
TS: We’ll get a little personal here. We all know Michael Jordan likes to wager on the golf course. I’m not sure you’ve gone up against Jordan, but you’ve played with Tony Romo in the past. What’s the largest sum of money you’ve won off of him while playing?
WZ: Ah, I can’t give that away because that will motivate him even more and I don’t need that. The thing about Tony is - and it’s the same thing in football - he could have the worst three quarters that you think of his career and then it comes down to the final few holes and he turns into a +4 handicap and goes birdie, birdie, birdie. I could smoke him for three hours and then the final hour he just kicks my teeth in. So I don’t need to get any more motivation out of him. We’ve had some good knock-down, drag-outs I’ll tell you that.
TS: Do you give him strokes when you play?
WZ: Yeah it varies. It kind of depends how either of us are playing. It generally goes from 2-4 per side. It’s mainly three, but it will kind of vary on how our games have gone in recent days. Like if he kicked my tail the day before I might give him two, but if I got him pretty good I’ll give him four.
TS: We’ve all seen the Happy Gilmore comparisons. What was it like hearing from Adam Sandler while you’re playing in the biggest tournament of your life?
WZ: I didn’t see it until the next day, or I guess, it was on Monday. Yeah, I mean I said that I thought it was weird sitting here thinking about being the member of a Ryder Cup team or six months ago I thought I was going to be playing on the Korn Ferry. Having Adam Sandler text you, ‘great playing and congrats on the engagement’ was probably one of more bizarre things that has come out of all of this. Being a massive fan, and I’ve gotten the Happy Gilmore comparison for probably seven years, so it was just kind of funny. If he ever decides to come out with a Happy Gilmore 2 I’ll have to grow the hair back out and audition.
TS: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing with Gillette this week?
WZ: So they have their 72 Club, which is part of their new 72-hour coverage with their new deodorant. Max Homa and I are partnering with Gillette and we’ll be making an announcement on on Instagram Lives together. Basically, what we’re doing now is you can sign up for the 72 Club and turn in your scores.
More interviews with The Spun can be found here.