JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Will Zalatoris was a few holes into his U.S. Junior Amateur Championship final match nearly three weeks ago when Jerry Haas made a bold declaration.
I could see him winning the U.S. Amateur, said Haas, the Wake Forest University head coach whom Zalatoris will play for this fall. He has all the things you envy in a golfer. He’s a leader, a hard worker, an unbelievable talent.
Zalatoris, 17, of Plano, Texas, went on to defeat Davis Riley for the U.S. Junior Amateur title that day at The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas. In doing so, Zalatoris arrived at the U.S. Amateur Championship with high expectations, just as fellow Texan Scottie Scheffler did a year ago after winning his own U.S. Junior Amateur title.
Both players were juniors by title only.
While Haas was talking about Zalatoris, he could easily have been describing Scheffler, 18, of Dallas, who matriculates to the University of Texas for his freshman year next week. After winning last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur, Scheffler reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. In May, he tied for 22nd at the PGA Tour’s HP Byron Nelson Championship.
Scheffler and Zalatoris both advanced to Wednesday’s opening round of match play at the 114th U.S. Amateur Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, but the results differed.
Scheffler was defeated, 1 up, by 2013 U.S. Amateur semifinalist Corey Conners, 22, of Canada, while Zalatoris recorded a 2-and-1 victory over Jordan Niebrugge, 21, of Mequon, Wis., the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion and USA Walker Cup Team member.
Obviously first time being in the match play in the U.S. Am, everything from here is a learning experience, Zalatoris said. I had a lot of fun today. Any time you're playing a Walker Cupper, it doesn't matter if they are injured or sick or whatever, it's going to be a challenge and that was an absolute blast.
In winning their respective U.S. Junior Amateur titles, Scheffler and Zalatoris each gained a measure of belief in their own abilities.
[Winning the U.S. Junior Amateur] didn’t really change me as much as it gave me confidence going into the rest of the summer and into my senior year of high school, said Scheffler, who starred at Highland Park High and was a three-time Texas University Interscholastic League Boys 4A champion. I had been playing really good golf going in, top-10s and top-fives pretty much the whole summer, but it did validate the way I had been playing. I won six matches in a row, which is difficult. So it gave me the confidence to know I could do that.
For Zalatoris, there was still work to be done. Yes, he was now a national champion, but only Tiger Woods has ever won both the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur, and that became a new goal.
Zalatoris told himself he would take five days off after winning the Junior Amateur, but by the fourth day he was back out working to improve his short game and hone the course management skills needed to win a U.S. Amateur.
Scheffler and Zalatoris, by virtue of their wins, were also thrust into the discussion of best amateurs at the national level. While Zalatoris had won the Texas Amateur and the prestigious Trans-Miss Championship in Tulsa, Okla., just prior to the U.S. Junior Amateur adding a USGA championship to his résumé placed Zalatoris’ name in the same breath as such recent winners as Woods (1991-93), David Duval (1989), Hunter Mahan (1999) and Jordan Spieth (2009, 2011).
Every [title] means a lot to you, but this is the one that really pushed me to play golf, said Zalatoris after the U.S. Junior Amateur. And I really, really wanted to win this. This is the first week that I really felt like I can do it.
Scheffler, No. 5 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, said he became a bit more recognizable after winning, and you ride that for a little while, but then you get back to doing what you were doing, he said, adding that the championship trophy eventually found its place in the corner of the Scheffler family’s dining room. So I never really saw it except for the few times I was playing pool and looked up and noticed it.
Leaving the ranks of junior golf also brings a transition that is not just about golf. While Scheffler will be making a three-hour drive down to the Longhorns’ Austin, Texas, campus, Zalatoris’ trip will be a four-hour flight and a one-hour drive, or 16-hour drive from home to Winston-Salem, N.C.
There will be a learning curve for sure, Scheffler said. I’ll be living in a house, so that won’t be that big of a change, but living with five guys and having to learn to do everything on my own. It’s a change, for sure.
Obviously it’s a big change, said Zalatoris, who has jumped more than 1,000 places this summer to No. 91 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. It’s part of the maturation process. I know it’s going to be a big change, being on my own, doing my own laundry, but it is part of the process. It’s supposed to happen and I’m excited about it.
Scheffler and Zalatoris are growing up. Their golf games do not appear to be too far behind.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.