Will Zalatoris entered the 2021 Masters as the No. 46-ranked golfer in the world, one who is not yet a member of the PGA Tour. But that distinction -- or lack thereof -- completely belies his talent level. Zalatoris at ranked No. 30 in the world -- just ahead of Max Homa, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott -- by Data Golf, which uses adjusted strokes gained instead of finish position as a barometer for how well golfers are playing.
Since the start of 2020, Zalatoris has racked up 15 top 10s (including a win) across multiple tours, but he really started to pop in the broader golf community in Fall 2020 when he finished T6 in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot and earned special temporary membership on the PGA Tour in the tournaments that followed. Contrast that with two years ago when he was thrilled simply to qualify for The Players Championship.
Interestingly, Zalatoris said this week that the COVID-19 pandemic is part of the reason why he was even in the U.S. Open. The USGA pulled players who were thriving on the Korn Ferry Tour (the PGA Tour's feeder tour) in lieu of local and sectional qualifying, and Zalatoris said he probably would not have tried to qualify otherwise. His T6 finish led to a run that included top-15 finishes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Genesis Invitational and Farmers Insurance Open. He played his way into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and now he's playing in the penultimate pairing at the Masters.
Though Zalatoris' recognition has not yet caught up with his game -- which is world class -- his colleagues are quite aware that he has a significant level of talent. Zalatoris is No. 12 in the world from tee to green over the last six months across any tour, per Data Golf.
"I know he's a very confident individual," said Jordan Spieth earlier this year. "We have been playing, we played quite a bit of golf in Dallas together, actually, throughout the weeks. We play a lot with ... Tony Romo, and we get other pros in the area and have some really good games. So it's been nothing surprising over the last couple years after watching him week-in and week-out at home, and the game was clearly good enough to carry on to any level of golf. So, excited to see him doing so well and I think this is just the start for him."
Zalatoris is a bit older compared to our expectations for a prototypical young star on the PGA Tour these days. At 24, he labored through some ups and downs in high school but blossomed into a star at Wake Forest, where he set the school scoring record at a place that has seen some studs. From there, he's been good right away as a professional. It probably helps when you're sharpening your game against a mentor and friend who happens to be a three-time major winner.
"I've seen him do just some of the most miraculous things playing little games at home," Zalatoris said of Spieth. "Playing against him, he's always set the bar for, especially in Texas, in terms of whatever that bar is at whatever level. And so I think guys like Scottie Scheffler and myself really owe him a lot for setting that bar. He wins the U.S. Juniors, and Scott and I win the U.S. Juniors. So he's always pushed us."
Other U.S. Junior Amateur besides Scheffler and Spieth include Tiger Woods, David Duval and Johnny Miller. Pretty good company for Zalatoris -- who also played on the 2017 Walker Cup team with major champion Collin Morikawa -- to keep.
Zalatoris' swing is not classically beautiful as he gets his hands pretty far underneath on the downswing. It's not as frictionless as an Adam Scott or Rory McIlroy, and it's not the pendulum that Justin Thomas and Francesco Molinari create. But it works as well as any swing going right now and has him in a position to get into all the major championships and accelerate his rise.
As he continues to ascend, Zalatoris will almost certainly only become a better ball-striker and better iron player, which is the most important ingredient to carving out a successful (long) career on the PGA Tour. The comps for him -- Kyle Stanley, Xander Schauffele, Martin Kaymer -- are fascinating and easy to envision. It's not difficult when you squint at the numbers and think about what they mean to see Zalatoris as a top-10 player in the world (or better).
That's how good he's been and how much it has flown under the radar. That won't always be the case, of course, especially after breaking out this week at Augusta National where he's shot rounds of 70-68-71 as he tries to become just the 54th golfer to ever win a green jacket and the first in over 40 years to win in his first start.