‘You don’t see it happen this fast:’ Will Zalatoris’ rapid ascent awes his Korn Ferry peers

will zalatoris at rbc heritage

Will Zalatoris at the RBC Heritage last week.

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Will Zalatoris has been on the move, and not just up PGA Tour leaderboards. In January, in the midst of his breakout run on Tour, Zalatoris took some of his winnings — now at $3 million-plus and counting after his runner-up finish at the Masters two weeks ago — and bought a luxury condo in the fashionable Uptown district of his hometown of Dallas.

Zalatoris’s new pad resulted in a break-up of sorts, with his then-roommate and fellow Korn Ferry pro, Davis Riley, who relocated to his own place in North Dallas.

“Maybe he should pay my rent,” Riley joked Wednesday at the Korn Ferry Tour’s Veritex Bank Championship.

Zalatoris’ rapid ascent up the PGA Tour ranks — even if he’s still not yet a card-carrying member — has not been lost on any of his friends and former competitors on the Korn Ferry circuit. Ask Willy Z’s KFT brethren here at Texas Rangers GC about his success, which was kickstarted by a top-10 finish at the U.S. Open last September, and you’ll hear them speak with a mix of pride and awe, paired with a tinge of envy.     

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“You’re used to seeing players come up from the Korn Ferry Tour — that’s what it’s set up for — but you don’t see it happen this fast,” said Charlie Holland, a former Dallas high school star who played at the University of Texas and now is trying to find his way on the mini tours.

Indeed, it was only seven months ago that Zalatoris was still a relatively anonymous KFT player, hopscotching his way across the country, from Utah to San Antonio to Boise. Now, Zalatoris is the 28th ranked player in the world. Since his big week at Winged Foot, he has made 15 PGA Tour starts. Over that stretch, Zalatoris has missed just one cut and finished in the top-10 five times. His rise has been so precipitous that Zalatoris still leads the Korn Ferry’s 2020-21 points standings.

Whispers that the hometown hero might make a cameo as a spectator at the Veritex Bank Championship generated some buzz on the practice green Wednesday.

“Really?” said one player. “I haven’t heard that. It would be cool.”

The last time Zalatoris — known to his pals as “Stick” or “Willy Z” or Adam Sandler’s new Twitter buddy — played a KFT event was in September, at the Evans Scholars Invitational, in Glenview, Ill. (He tied for second.)

Zalatoris at a Korn Ferry event in 2019. His slender frame earned him the nickname “Stick.” getty images

“It’s a blast anytime a friend is doing something like Will is,” said Riley, who himself has been on an excellent run, winning two KFT titles in the elongated 2020-21 season, or one more than Zalatoris. “I’m definitely ready to move up, but we are pulling for each other.”

Riley said he and Zalatoris exchanged texts both Saturday and Sunday nights of the Masters, with Riley delivering a combination of encouragement and lighthearted needling.

“We probably give each other too much crap, but the way he handles adversity is very impressive, how cool he is in tough situations. I would like some of that,” Riley said.

Riley’s competitiveness with his old roomie doesn’t end on the golf course.

“We’ve had several Xbox controllers thrown across the room,” he said.

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Austin Smotherman, another Dallas-based KFT pro, first met Zalatoris during their college days. Smotherman, who attended Southern Methodist, recalls playing Zalatoris’ Wake Forest team in a match-play event at Pinehurst. Later, the two grew closer playing friendly(ish) games at Dallas’ Bent Tree Country Club. “I do remember some pushups for the loser,” Smotherman said with a smile.

Zalatoris’ newfound fame has not escaped Smotherman. “Since the Masters,” Smotherman said, “I’ve had a couple of people come up to me from behind because we have the same hair style in the back and we’re the same build. I’m happy to sign his name on an autograph. I don’t think mine would be worth much these days.”

Smotherman, whose frame is similar to that of the 6-foot-2 inch, 28-inch waisted Zalatoris, said he is mystified by how much speed Zalatoris generates with his driver. “Every drive is like 315 yards curling toward the fairway,” he said. “I think, What am I doing wrong?”

Among Zalatoris’ other admirers: former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who is playing on a sponsor’s exemption at the Veritex event this week. Romo knows Zalatoris’ game better than most, as the two are regular playing partners on the unofficial Dallas-area money-match circuit.

“I love him like a little brother,” Romo said Wednesday. “He’s helped my own game a lot.”

Romo added that when he and Zalatoris first started playing together, it didn’t take long for Romo to appreciate his young friend’s natural talent.

“It’s like watching somebody throw a football for the first time,” Romo said. “You think, OK, he’s got this. That’s the way it is with Will.”

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