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Will Zalatoris’ meteoric rise from the Korn Ferry Tour to THE PLAYERS

Sitting at the first-timers press conference at THE PLAYERS Championship on Wednesday, not even a ball-striking wunderkind like Will Zalatoris could have predicted this meteoric rise into the conversation as one of the PGA TOUR’s group of under-25 superstars. In nine months, Zalatoris, 24, has gone from the Korn Ferry Tour event at Dye’s Valley at TPC Sawgrass, where he finished T6, to a tee time at the Stadium Course across the range at THE PLAYERS this week.

He’s gone from No. 18 on the Korn Ferry Tour points standings to No. 1 and a Korn Ferry Tour winner. From No. 487 in the Official World Golf Rankings to No. 46 to lock up a spot in THE PLAYERS. From a guy with one career made cut on the PGA TOUR to a guy with a nine top-25s, including five top-10s, in only 12 starts this season and Special Temporary Membership. From a recipient of the Arnold Palmer Scholarship at Wake Forest to a T10 at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.

“Just feel a lot of gratitude. If you told me I was going to be here [at PLAYERS] after playing in the Korn Ferry event, I would have thought you were crazy,” Zalatoris said of his last nine months. “Commissioner Monahan was saying, ‘Hey, I remember seeing you playing in the Korn Ferry event and here you are! That’s pretty cool!’ And I was like, ‘Trust me, it’s pretty cool from this point of view, too!’ So yeah, like I said, just a lot of gratitude. It’s pretty freaking cool!”

The stats for Zalatoris at this point are mindboggling for a rookie, and PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year honors seem like a lock at this point. His five top-10s is tied for the TOUR lead with Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Harris English, and Tony Finau, and he’s top-15 in both scoring average and SG: Total. Over his last 36 rounds on TOUR, Zalatoris is No. 4 in SG Tee-To-Green, and he’s No. 6 in SG: Tee-To-Green for the entire season. The only three players that have hit it better than him over their last 36 rounds are three of the top four ranked players in the world – Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa.

“I think that’s why it makes this week so special considering not even a year ago we were playing Dye’s Valley, and honestly it was just trying to see where my game was at. I’d spent four months basically just playing golf getting back to being an artist of playing,” Zalatoris said. “To say these last 10 months have been a blur is an understatement.”

It’s that prodigious ball-striking that’s allowed him to bring the consistency from the Korn Ferry Tour, where he was 16 for 16 in cuts made with 10 top-10s and a win in 2020 to the PGA TOUR. In only 12 starts this season on TOUR, Zalatoris has missed just one cut, and he needed only five starts to earn Special Temporary Membership.

Even Zalatoris admitted that he’s been surprised at how well the consistency has transferred up.

“A little bit [surprised], but I think having that mindset that there’s still 18 holes out there and everyone’s playing a golf course and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Korn Ferry event or THE PLAYERS, it’s all the same,” Zalatoris said. “I think that’s really been engrained in me over the past year, and I think that’s why I’ve been so consistent at the different levels.”

It’s been no surprise to long-time Korn Ferry Tour caddie J.J James, who has seen a number of future stars come through the Korn Ferry Tour but says Zalatoris outshined them all. It’s somewhat of a testament to good things happen to good people, too, in James’ mind.

“[Zalatoris] is dangerous. He has that eye. He has that smile. He’s lean and mean. He’s tough. He’s my little buddy. I like him. He’s a good kid, too,” James said. “I kept on telling him when he was making enough money that he could play out (on the PGA TOUR), I saw him at one of the Korn Ferry Tour events and I said, ‘Good. Now goodbye. I don’t want to see you anymore because you’re one less we’ve got to beat every week. Top-five every week. Get on out of here.’ I’ve seen some other ones come out, but I would say overall because he’s earned his stripes out on this Tour too and dominated. He’s very good, very good. Enough good can’t happen to him. He’s just that nice of a young man.”

In Zalatoris’ estimation, the biggest adjustment with the jump has revolved more around adjusting to the difficulty of the courses than the competition.

“I mean I think it’s mainly just the golf courses,” Zalatoris said. “Obviously, there’s more fans and what not but that part thankfully for me I enjoy it. I thrive off having people. If anything, I’m really excited about having more people here than we’ve had over the last while, but the courses are just tougher out here. You can’t make the same mistakes. Greens firm up a lot more on the weekend, and pins are going to be tucked. You just have to be that much more precise.”

It’s been a different route to the PGA TOUR than his fellow under-25 young guns like Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, Sungjae Im, Joaquin Niemann, Matthew Wolff and Sam Burns. Zalatoris, the 2014 U.S. Junior Champ, spent four years in college, graduating in 2018 with a degree in Psychology, and then spent two full years on the Korn Ferry Tour. He didn’t find immediate success on TOUR like his counterparts despite a number of sponsor’s exemptions in 2018, but he just continued working, working his way up the leader. TOUR card or not, that growth-minded focus will remain, he says.

“I wanted to get my PGA TOUR card by any form or fashion no matter what it was over the past, but I’ve had the same mindset of just taking each week to get better at whatever I’m working on and to just get better at my craft,” Zalatoris said. “That’s carried over as I’ve gone through the last three years. I’ve had the same mindset from Monday Qualifiers from the Korn Ferry Tour to here. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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