Will Zalatoris’ painful week ended in heavy emotions and important reminders

Will Zalatoris

Will Zalatoris gestures to the crowd after finishing the Genesis Invitational on Sunday.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — When Will Zalatoris made a hole in one Friday at the Genesis Invitational, it got plenty of attention. Just as the tournament sponsor prefers. 

When Zalatoris’ ball dropped into the cup at Riviera’s 14th hole, he leapt into his caddie’s arms. He had won an SUV and, maybe more importantly, he won his caddie an electric sedan. They did a jolly press conference together afterward. Life was good. But when the tournament ended and Zalatoris thought about that moment again Sunday afternoon, his mind was in a much different place. 

A simple idea had been posed to him. Given all you’ve been through (injury-wise), and that you finished second this week, what are your emotions right now?

“Yeah, ummmm,” he began. “Pretty excited with where my game’s headed. You know I didn’t say anything all week, but I, uh …”

He took a deep breath and began rubbing the back of his neck. 

“Sorry,” he said. 

Another deep breath. His eyes started to water. After a full 25 seconds of silence, he readied to speak again.

“I lost a family member on Thursday. She was …”

Another 14-second pause. Zalatoris talked into a camera, and on the opposite side of a metal fence from the press. You wanted to reach out and hug him. 

“So she was with me all week. It was, ah, pretty special on Friday to make the hole in one.”

He cleared his throat and apologized again. Another 10-second pause. 

“It was pretty special to make the hole in one on Friday after I found out on Thursday. She was with me all week.” 

No matter how much pro golfers appear on television, no matter how many decisions they make for millions of dollars, no matter how un-relatable their lives can seem — you never know exactly what’s going on in the background. This press conference, on the heels of Zalatoris’ T2 finish, was a undeniable reminder. 

How an epic 30 minutes (and a little chaos) decided the Genesis Invitational
By: Zephyr Melton

IT WAS NEVER A GUARANTEE Zalatoris would even play in this event. Ten months ago, the 27-year-old underwent a very rare, 57-year-old surgery. A microdiscectomy to alleviate pain from a herniated disc in his back. It forced him to pull out of the 2023 Masters 30 minutes before his opening tee time. What his doctors told him eliminated most of his 2023, period. He couldn’t make full swings for months. He was the No. 8 player in the world but medically forced into pausing his career without a clear timeline. 

At first, he hoped to return in September. He did a lot of reading — a lot of Netflix watching — and began finishing his psychology degree from Wake Forest. When his body wasn’t ready for September, he adjusted his timeline to October. He did a bit of travel, attended Wimbledon in July and refocused on an even later return. Only once he received a sponsor’s invite to the Hero World Challenge, in late November, did he finally find himself back in elite competition. All thanks to said invite coming from Tiger Woods, a man with his own slate of back issues.

This week, at the mega-money Signature Event, Zalatoris was in the field via another invite from Woods, because the new PGA Tour does not wait for microdiscectomies. Only the top 50 players from 2023 have guaranteed their way into all of the biggest events. Zalatoris’ time on the sideline means he’ll need to continue playing well to enter Signature Events on this road back. Or continue depending on invites. His opening 66 was a welcomed sight, the best round of his post-surgery life. He blitzed the front nine in a six-birdie 29, immediately validating his exemption.

Later that night he found out he had lost a family member. 

The next morning came quick. A 7:32 a.m. tee time and, a couple hours later, the ace. Afterward a reporter acknowledged that his caddie’s new car was actually worth more than the one he was getting. Might they need to swap?

“No, he can have it. Absolutely he can have it.”

On Saturday, Zalatoris carded 65, a new best round of his post-surgery life. He entered the final day two shots back of the lead, one group ahead of the leaders, and by the time he reached the 14th tee box, he was alone in the lead. 

Really he had been encroaching on that top spot for days, and finally it was his with just five holes to play. He’d play them in four pars and a bogey. One-over for the last five won’t get it done at Riviera. But it helped the sting that the winner ran away from Zalatoris and the rest of the field. 

“And this is the beauty of this game is,” he said. “It’s kind of nice when you get beat by somebody who shoots 62 on Sunday. 62 on Sunday is usually going to win a golf tournament or going to make you a lot of money. Hats off to Hideki, that is just stellar playing.”

Zally was extremely right with that adjective “stellar.” He was also right about 62s on Sundays, those days when the accolades get passed out. Luke List’s $1.8 million for sharing second place. Matsuyama’s ninth career win, making him the winningest player from Asia in Tour history. The second-biggest paycheck of Chase Johnson’s life. He was this week’s Charlie Sifford exemption. (His biggest paycheck came at a 2020 Korn Ferry Tour event won by … Zalatoris.)

Zalatoris earned a bunch, too. A boat-load of world ranking points, up to 32nd in the world from 54th. Another boatload of FedEx Cup points, the currency that will earn him into these events next year, no invites needed. He earned a feeling of the commitment he wants to feel in contention, as the major championship season comes into focus. There was another feeling, too — pride in how he handled himself. When his round was over he shared an embrace with his wife, Caitlin, like he has done many times. This one had to feel different. Next came that heartbreaking discussion with the press. His coach, Josh Gregory, watched on with tears in his eyes.

“Just shows you life’s short and appreciate the moments,” Zalatoris said. “How lucky I am to be out here.”

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