Rocket Mortgage Classic - Round One
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Seventeen months ago, nobody who casually follows golf knew of Will Zalatoris. Over the weekend at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, as Zalatoris tried to close out Austrian Sepp Straka in the first FedEx Cup Playoffs event, those same people were demanding that he finally get the win that his play throughout those 17 months foretold. Such is live as a budding professional golf star in 2022.

The Zalatoris story starts long before the 2021 Masters, but for the purposes of golf as a spectator sport on the biggest stage, that is where Zalatoris introduced himself to the world. This gets lost a bit, but he nearly won that Masters. Hideki Matsuyama beat him by a single stroke after Zalatoris played the last four holes in 2 under while Matsuayma played them in 3 over.

Thus began a year-and-a-half run of close calls. Two more top 10s at majors in 2021 followed by two runner-up finishes at majors in 2022 -- one of them in a playoff to Justin Thomas -- as well as five other top-six finishes on the PGA Tour this season. Zalatoris summed it up nicely during his post-tournament press conference in Memphis.

"It's kind of hard to say 'about time' when it's your second year on Tour, but about time," said Zalatoris.

Golf is goofy. Zalatoris' St. Jude performance wasn't his best of the last two years. It wasn't even close. In terms of strokes gained, Zalatoris was better at the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, the aforementioned 2021 Masters, this year's Masters, this year's PGA Championship, this year's U.S. Open, the Memorial this June and the Farmers Insurance Open in January, which he lost in a playoff to Luke List. So, of course he loses all seven of those tournaments and wins this one. When the best players say they're going to keep knocking on the door and believing it will come down, that's more or less what they mean.

"I think anytime you put yourself in contention you're going to learn something about yourself," he said. "The first second at the Masters was life-changing because it put me in position to play out here as much as I wanted to and put me kind of on the map. The second at the PGA was kind of affirmation that it wasn't a fluke of a week, and the third one at the U.S. Open gave me that much more belief that I can win a major, I can win out here. It was just a matter of time and obviously this was my week."

Zalatoris has played just 56 PGA Tour events, and he's now six strokes from having five wins, including three major championships. Think about that for a minute. Six strokes from five wins including three majors in his first 56 starts on the PGA Tour. Fittingly, it is someone who nearly put those numbers together in his first 56 starts that makes me so bullish on the trajectory of Zalatoris' career. Let's do a blind statistical test to immerse ourselves in this point.

Since June 1, 2020Player 1Player 2

SG off the tee

0.56

0.53

SG approach

0.95

0.90

SG around the green

0.04

0.14

SG putting

-0.11

0.00

SG tee to green

1.54

1.57

Rounds
203
219
Wins
5
1
Majors
2
0
Major top 10s
6
6

Player 1 is Collin Morikawa and Player 2 is Zalatoris. Until you get to the wins and majors part, they are almost identical, and yet we do not talk about them as being in the same stratosphere. Most of this is because we crazily overvalue major wins, especially early on in a player's career. Some of it is because we undervalue non-wins, of which Zalatoris has had many. All of it would imply, however, that we should probably talk about them -- at least in terms of what they accomplish from this point forward -- more synonymously.

When Zalatoris poured in a 10-footer on the 72nd hole on Sunday that could have won him the golf tournament, he turned to somebody behind him, presumably his caddie, and screamed, "Now what are they going to say?!" It was clearly a heat-of-the-moment exclamation (which you always love to see), but it underscored a bit of the confusion about what Zalatoris is as a player.

While it's true that his putting stroke on short putts looks like his elbows are being tasered, his putting performance overall is solid, if not above average. This season, he's positive strokes gained putting, which, when you hit the golf ball like Zalatoris, is plenty good enough to win multiple times a year.  He's also one of the best lag putters on the PGA Tour (he's currently T3 in approach putt performance). Because the stroke sometimes looks so grotesque, though, perhaps casual fans or even some media have developed a narrative about Zalatoris that isn't actually true and some of that is likely to what he was responding. Again, all of this only makes me more excited about where he's headed.

Joseph LaManga tossed out a question during the final round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship on Sunday that fascinates me. If you had to choose one player's career earnings starting Jan. 1, 2023, who would you choose? Age eliminates guys like Rory McIlroy and probably even Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. We're presuming LIV Golf earnings don't count, so this excludes Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka.

You want a young star who is capable of taking advantage of the influx of cash the PGA Tour apparently has coming its way over the next two decades. Your real candidates are probably Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Hovland, Sam Burns, Jon Rahm, Morikawa and Zalatoris.

At first I discarded Zalatoris, but the more I thought about it, the more I'm convinced that might be the right answer. At the very least, it's not obvious that you would pick Scheffler or Hovland or Morikawa or Rahm over Zalatoris, which is an amazing thing to say about somebody who didn't have a PGA Tour victory 24 hours ago. And while when it comes down to taking Zalatoris, with anything worthwhile at stake, I'm still not sure that I would. The part that should concern the rest of the world for the next 10 or 15 years, however, is that I'm also not sure that I wouldn't.

Rick Gehman and Kyle Porter recap the 2022 FedEx St Jude Championship. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.