When Dustin Johnson withdrew from the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am early this week, it left a tournament whose course is a monster attraction with few stars left to play it. None of the top 10 players in the world will be teeing it up and only three of the top 40 in the Official World Golf Rankings have a tee time at both Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill Golf Course on Thursday and Friday.
However, don't be fooled by these rankings. Just beyond the numbers lurks a handful of stars whose names have not entered the everyday golf lexicon, and one of those names is Will Zalatoris.
Zalatoris is ranked No. 49 in the world, but that belies his talent level. Data Golf, which uses adjusted strokes gained instead of finish position as a barometer for how well they're playing, has Zalatoris No. 26 in the world, just ahead of Tommy Fleetwood, Collin Morikawa, Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia.
Since the start of 2020, Zalatoris has racked up 14 top 10s (including a win) across multiple tours, but he really started to pop in the broader golf community in the fall when he finished T6 at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot and earned special temporary membership on the PGA Tour in the tournaments that followed.
His name recognition has not yet caught up with his game. According to Data Golf, only Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Bubba Watson have been better from tee to green over the last six months across any tour, and Zalatoris has been -- by far -- the best ball-striker in this Pebble Beach field during that span of time.
Zalatoris is a bit older than what we think of as the 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 the Jordan Spieths and Scottie Schefflers of the world on your off weeks and in your downtime.
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"I think like it kind of goes back to playing with guys like Scottie and Jordan ... Kramer Hickok and I went to high school together, all these guys have been successful," Zalatoris said on Tuesday. "I think that, if anything, gave me the self belief that I can be here. There's really hasn't been anything shocking just because I've been around those guys and seen their processes and how they go about getting better."
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, and going into this week's tournament at Pebble Beach, Zalatoris -- who is one of the five heaviest favorites in the field -- is likely spending his last weeks or months as someone who's relatively unknown to sports fans. Hopefully he enjoys it.