Will Zalatoris didn’t let one of the biggest disappointments of his young golf career keep him down, instead using it as motivation to power his tour de force performance on the 2014 amateur circuit, which was highlighted by his July triumph in the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
After qualifying for four consecutive U.S. Juniors from ages 12 to 15, Zalatoris failed to qualify in 2013. That slipup cost him a chance at a record six U.S. Junior appearances, a fact not lost on him.
"It was my benchmark tournament every year," he said. "Every year, I went out and prepared with the U.S. Junior in mind. If I made it [in 2013], I would have set the appearances record and that's what I really wanted. I probably wanted it too much."
With disappointment came improved patience, and Zalatoris made good use of his newest attribute as the calendar flipped to 2014.
In his final year of eligibility, Zalatoris qualified for his fifth U.S. Junior, which tied him with six others, including Jack Nicklaus (who never won the Junior). Zalatoris is the only one of those players to not play in five consecutive championships. But before Zalatoris visited The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course in The Woodlands, Texas, for the 67th U.S. Junior, he had other trophies in his sights.
Zalatoris, now 18, of Plano, Texas, posted a trio of impressive victories leading up to the U.S. Junior: the Trans-Miss Amateur, the Texas Amateur and The Champions Invitational. His season also included a 59 in a non-competitive round.
Playing in his home state in the Junior, Zalatoris seemed at ease at nearly all times, despite Carlton Woods’ difficult layout. He shot a solid 4-under-par 140 to finish tied for sixth in stroke-play qualifying. Despite a pair of scares – he was 3 down through four holes in the Round of 32 and had to stave off a late charge from Curtis Luck in the semifinals – the match-play portion of the championship served as something of a Zalatoris highlight reel.
Zalatoris ousted co-medalist Sean Crocker in the quarterfinals with a clinching 40-foot putt over a ridge, and he played the afternoon round of the championship match like someone using cheat codes in a video game.
Following a nip-and-tuck morning session against 2013 runner-up Davis Riley that finished all square, Zalatoris simply took it to another level and pulled away from Riley, who played outstanding golf in his own right.
On multiple occasions, Zalatoris turned near certain losses into unexpected halves or even stunning wins with deft bunker play. He gradually padded his lead to 3 up and hit the shot of the championship on the par-4 14th.
After striping his drive down the middle, 119 yards from the flagstick, Zalatoris hit a soaring 56-degree wedge that made a beeline for the flag and one-hopped into the hole for an eagle 2. Video of the shot made ESPN News’ top plays of the day.
"Scott [Fawcett, Zalatoris’ caddie and mentor] and I like to look back at the end of a tournament that I win and revisit the key shot that summed up the victory," he said. "For the Junior, there were probably five or six of them. It was just a great week."
On the next hole, Zalatoris finally got to experience the moment he had envisioned for so many years.
|Players who have competed in 5 U.S. Junior Amateurs|
|John Konsek (1953-1957)
Jack Nicklaus (1953-1957)
Robert Kirouac (1956-1960)
Travis Whisman (1995-1999)
James Vargas (1997-2001)
*-Jim Liu (2009-2013)
*-Will Zalatoris (2009-2012, 2014)
"That was a tournament that I always wanted to win," he said. "It's a USGA championship. There's something about it when you see those white signs at the teeing grounds. It gets me so excited."
With his name now engraved on a trophy alongside names such as Tiger Woods, Johnny Miller, Hunter Mahan, David Duval and Jordan Spieth, Zalatoris would have been excused for taking it easy. But he was far from done.
Zalatoris returned to USGA championship golf a few weeks later in the U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club, where he made an impressive run to the Round of 16 before losing to Zachary Olsen.
The success didn’t stop as the leaves started to fall. Zalatoris transitioned to college life as a freshman at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. The recipient of the prestigious Arnold Palmer Scholarship, named after the legendary golfer and three-time USGA champion, Zalatoris’ fall season was a rousing success.
Zalatoris led the Demon Deacons with a 70.18 stroke average and earned medalist honors at the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate, which Wake Forest also won as a team in October.
Under the tutelage of what he termed “the best coaching staff in college golf,” led by head coach Jerry Haas and assistant Dan Walters, Zalatoris has made major strides in his short game.
With the fall semester set to wrap up next week, there is still one item to cross off Zalatoris’ checklist before the calendar turns to 2015: the Walker Cup Match.
Zalatoris is one of 16 players invited to a practice session for the 2015 Walker Cup, Dec. 17-20 at Federica Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga. An invitation to the practice session doesn’t guarantee inclusion on USA captain John “Spider” Miller’s final 10-player roster, but Zalatoris is very motivated.
"I set a lot of short-term goals for myself and this is one that is actually a long-term goal,” said the No. 7 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™. “The opportunity to represent my country… I hope I get the chance to play. Up on the wall in my dorm, I have a picture of the Walker Cup and the last U.S. team that won [in 2013]. It's huge motivation for me. I really, really want to put on the red, white and blue, and I know a lot of other guys do, too."
The competition will be steep for sure, but he outlasted the best of the best all summer. It would seem unwise to count him out now.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.