Will Zalatoris suffered ‘worst nightmare’ at Augusta. Now he’s back

Will Zalatoris missed months of competition after a back injury at Augusta National.

Will Zalatoris missed months of competition after a back injury at Augusta National.

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ALBANY, Bahamas — “It’s been — it’s been an interesting seven months.”

So began Will Zalatoris’ public reintroduction at the Hero World Challenge, his first golf tournament since April. The competitive comeback of tournament host Tiger Woods has scooped up most of the headlines in the Bahamas this week, but when Zalatoris disappeared he was ranked inside the top 10 in the world and had fully established himself among the best players in the world.

His back had other ideas.

“Kind of a golfer’s worst nightmare is feeling your back giving out on the driving range at Augusta 30 minutes before your tee time,” Zalatoris said.

That was the beginning of a several-minute monologue with which he began his Tuesday pre-tournament press conference. It was clear that Zalatoris has had a lot of time to think, and reflect, and analyze. On Tuesday he let that out.

“It’s been a patience game,” he added. “It’s been a grind.”

I asked Zalatoris what the most challenging moment had been. Anyone driven enough to be a professional golfer must have a difficult time just sitting and waiting, after all. From his answer, it’s clear that there were different challenges at different times. But he pointed to the emotional devastation of that very first weekend.

“I think when I go from ramping up to Augusta, hurt my back on Thursday and then Saturday I’m already having surgery? It’s a big swing of emotions,” he said. “I think the first five, six weeks was probably the hardest.”

From there it was all about making gradual progress. He went back to school — more on that in a moment — and then, after a couple months, returned to practice. But the patience required drove him nuts.

“One of the more frustrating things was actually that I was told I can’t play more than three days in a row,” he said, referring to his fifth month of recovery. “I had shot like 63-65-64 at home and I was like, the last thing I want to do is not play golf tomorrow, especially with the months that I had leading up to that.”

Back to that school, though. Zalatoris, who attended Wake Forest before turning pro, returned virtually to college to finish out some electives.

“It was pretty funny taking some elective classes when all the kids were 18, 19 in the summers and I’m 27 and I’m writing my resume for work and, you know, a LinkedIn account and whatnot. There were some pretty funny aspects in there.”

Zalatoris had finished his major — psychology — during his time at Wake. This felt like the right opportunity to fill in the rest.

As to his progression? Zalatoris admitted he’s been afraid to make any swing changes.

“My three years on Tour, my worst strokes gained approach was second on Tour,” he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was change anything.”

But now he’s encouraged by what he’s seen. Not just those scores at home but the way it looks and feels. His ball speed is coming back little by little — he hit 178 mph on the driving range on Monday, he said, just a few mph behind the low 180s he was hitting last year — but this version of his swing feels more sustainable.

That means more homework, and not just in psychology. Before and after Tuesday’s practice round he worked on his body for two hours, he said. That’s part of the gig, he’s learned. And he’s getting some advice from someone who has been through the same thing.

“So, we had the same surgeon,” Zalatoris said of Tiger Woods, who he saw at the Nexus Cup, at Liberty National, in September. Woods encouraged him to take his time coming back. You never hear anybody complain they came back too late, after all. “I mean, he really asked me more questions than I was able to. But it was the questions that he asked that were really kind of thought-provoking.”

Zalatoris acknowledged that’s been another realization of the past seven months — just how absurd Woods’ own comeback was.

“I think the beauty on my end is that I’m only 27 and I have a lot of golf ahead of me,” he said. “The fact that he did it in his 40s and had gone through I think multiple back surgeries and let alone what’s gone on with his knee and his leg and everything is just, I can’t put words on it.

“I was told early on that injuries and surgeries are almost as much mental as they are physical, and we all know that he’s one of the strongest people, mentally, on the planet. Now having a better appreciation for it, it’s truly remarkable.”

There are little lifestyle changes that he’ll stick to. Zalatoris isn’t carrying a backpack when he travels. He’s not sitting on barstools because that’s bad for his disks. “It’s just little things that add up,” he said.

So this week will be R&D. It’s a low-key offseason event, but it’s still tournament play. How will his body respond to the pressures and adrenaline of PGA Tour competition? How will his mind respond?

“If I put 72 holes together pain-free and we’re able to take away a lot of things of what I can work on over the next month before I start up for the next year — either way it’s a positive.”

Zalatoris admitted that there were some benefits to a few months of unencumbered schedule. He and his wife did what he called some “bucket-list traveling,” once he was healthy enough to do so, including a trip to Wimbledon. And he enjoyed the comforts of a home routine.

“It was weird. Traveling as much as I do, at home I [usually] leave all my stuff in my backpack. It’s like, I can actually put stuff away in drawers and not live on the road.”

But he didn’t want that to be forever.

“The toughest thing was really just not knowing exactly when I was going to come back,” he said.

Here he is.

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