Bremerton, Wash. – If William Zalatoris seems a bit beyond his years … well, he is – kind of.
All of 14 years old, the Plano, Texas, resident is competing in his third U.S. Junior Amateur Championship this week at Gold Mountain Golf Club.
That’s no misprint. His third Junior.
Zalatoris qualified at 12 in 2009, missing the match-play cut at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., at a time when most 12-year-olds are figuring out how to get the golf ball airborne, not whether they can play with the best 17-and-under golfers in the country.
Last year at Egypt Valley C.C. in Ada, Mich., he made match play, losing in the first round to Bryson Dechambeau of Clovis, Calif., 4 and 2.
On Sunday night, Zalatoris was greeted by guest speaker and 1964 Junior Amateur/1973 U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller at the players’ dinner when he received a three-year Junior Amateur participation medal from the USGA. He was the youngest of that group of nine golfers.
But Zalatoris is doing more at this competition than collecting participation medals. He’s winning matches.
Zalatoris advanced to the round of 16 Thursday morning with a 3-and-2 win over 16-year-old Andy Olsen of San Antonio. He faced Chelso Barrett, 16, of Keene, N.H., in a third-round match Thursday afternoon. Barrett won the match, 2 and 1.
“He’s one of the best players out here,” said fellow Texan and 2009 champion Jordan Spieth. “He’s gotten a lot longer. That was kind of his weakness. Also his putting stroke has gotten a lot more consistent. That should hold up in a tournament like this.”
Two years ago, Zalatoris shocked even himself by qualifying for the Junior Amateur. At his sectional in Texas, he played his last 12 holes in nine under par to get into the championship.
He showed up in New Jersey all of 5-foot-5, looking more like a young caddie than a contestant. Nobody at Trump questioned him, but even Spieth wondered what Zalatoris was doing there. One of the golfers he was grouped with for the first two days was Patrick Cantlay, now one of the top amateurs in the world.
Despite a severe case of nerves – Zalatoris admitted it was tough getting the tee into the ground – he posted a remarkable 71 on the New Course. But in damp, rainy conditions in round two of stroke play, he ballooned to an 87.
“That was a real learning experience,” said Rick Zalatoris, William’s father. “In that driving rainstorm he quit playing essentially and doubled a bunch of holes and missed the cut [by four shots]. The lesson he learned from that was to never give up. That was a very bitter pill to swallow and he swallowed it.”
To listen to William tell it, each year is a stepping stone. He went from missing the cut, to playing one match to making a run at possibly winning the championship. Growth and maturity have had a lot to do with the leap.
Over the past year, Zalatoris shot up 6 inches and he now stands 6 feet, 1 inch. Look at him from a distance and one would think he’s 20, although close up his braces give away his youthful adolescence.
“Back [in 2009] I was on my tippy-toes to get over my mom,” he said. “Now she jokes that I am patting her on the head.”
Adjusting to the growth spurt has taken time for Zalatoris, but ironically it was on the greens where it took the most time for him to get comfortable. He struggled through most of last fall, but working with instructor David Price at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas has paid dividends.
Price actually had Zalatoris shorten the shaft on his driver a half-inch and it has led to more consistency off the tee. And once the putting stroke came back, he was on his way to qualifying for another Junior Amateur.
“Growing 6 inches in a calendar year, that kills you,” said William. “Kind of the odd part was putting. That was the hardest part.”
Zalatoris also no longer has to swing for the fence just to get his ball past his fellow competitors. In 2009, he would just grip and rip and hope the ball found the fairway. Now his swing is under control to the point where hitting 16 or 17 greens in a round is the norm.
“Total maturity,” said Zalatoris of the biggest change in his game the past two years. “Now I’m long enough to where I can put it in the right spots and I’ve got control.”
An only child, Zalatoris has been exposed to many things off the course as well. His parents were taking him on trips to Hawaii before he could walk. As he got older, those trips included golf vacations, including a visit to Turnberry and Gleneagles in Scotland.
But Zalatoris, a sophomore at Trinity Christian High School, also is willing to assist others who aren’t as fortunate. He’s involved with a program called Helping Other Peers Excel (HOPE), where he assists elementary and middle-school students with learning disabilities.
The past two summers, he has also been an ambassador with the local PGA chapter’s Birdies for Kids fundraiser.
“He’s just a well-rounded good kid,” said Rick Zalatoris. “My wife and I feel very blessed.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.