THE WOODLANDS, Texas – It’s not often a 17-year-old can be classified as a veteran of anything. William Zalatoris, of Plano, Texas, is an exception at this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course.
Zalatoris is playing in his fifth U.S. Junior in six years and his quest for his first championship will continue in match play. He followed up his first-round 71 with a 3-under 69 in Tuesday’s second round to stand at 4-under 140 through 36 holes.
I played extremely well. I’ve been hitting the ball well all summer, Zalatoris said. I putted well, but didn’t make very many of them. Even though I shot 3 under [today], I felt I played even better than that.
Zalatoris qualified for his first U.S. Junior in 2009 at the age of 12, shooting 9 under over his last 12 holes in qualifying to get into the championship at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. Following an impressive 1-under 71 in the first round of stroke play, his age caught up with him in a 16-over second-round showing.
A 12-year-old on a 7,200-plus-yard course, that’s pretty tough right there. I definitely blew up a little, Zalatoris said.
The Wake Forest University-bound Zalatoris has advanced to match play in all of his subsequent appearances in the U.S. Junior, with his best finish coming in 2011, when he advanced to the round of 16. He was eliminated in the round of 64 in both 2010 and 2012.
Although he joked that he was going into retirement, Zalatoris said he doesn’t have a sense of sadness regarding his junior golf swan song.
It’s an event I have a lot of emotions with, he said. It’s kind of been a steppingstone each year for me. Over the years, the USGA has done a good job making the different courses play similarly, so it’s a good gauge of my progress. It’s a tournament I’ve wanted to win since I was 12.
It’s exciting. I don’t have any sadness at all. Being in Texas, it would be great to win it on home turf. If I advance in match play, I’ll probably have a bunch of friends and family following me. No matter what happens, it’s more of a celebration than sadness.
Sadness is something Zalatoris has experienced with the U.S. Junior, however. This would have marked a record-setting sixth championship appearance if not for a hiccup in qualifying last year. Zalatoris, who has qualified for his five U.S. Junior appearances in five different states, struggled amid rainy conditions at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash.
As disappointing as it may have been, the mature-beyond-his-years Zalatoris made sure one bad day wouldn’t turn into a fruitless endeavor.
Even though it wasn’t technically a loss, you always learn more from your losses than your wins, he said. I learned a lot from that. I wanted to qualify too badly. I’m learning patience. As a 17-year-old, that’s a hard word to spell, never mind practice.
It didn’t take long for Zalatoris to put patience into practice, as he qualified for his first U.S. Amateur Championship a month later. He didn’t advance to match play, but he will get a second chance, as he qualified for this year’s U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club in August.
With Zalatoris treating the week as a celebration of U.S. Juniors past, it would not be surprising to see him celebrating as the last man standing. His 2014 triumphs already include the Texas Amateur, the Trans-Miss Amateur and The Champions Invitational, at which he lapped the field with an 11-stroke victory for his second Champions win. He joined elite company with his Champions win, joining two-time U.S. Junior champion Jordan Spieth, and 2014 U.S. Open and British Open runner-up Rickie Fowler, as the tournament’s only repeat winners. Then there’s that 59 he shot in a high school practice round.
I can’t really put it into words, the hard work that is paying off, said Zalatoris, who credits a lot of his improvement to instructor David Price at his home club, Bent Tree Country Club, in Dallas. Last year was a tough pill to swallow not getting to play [in the U.S. Junior]. So this winter has been a lot of hard work and it’s great to see it rewarded.
Should Zalatoris hoist the Junior Amateur Championship Trophy on Saturday, it would be a great piece of hardware to add to the family trophy case. But it’s tough to compete with his prized keepsake.
Through his friendship with fellow Bent Tree member Billy Weiss, Zalatoris acquired a Congressional Gold Medal once bestowed upon 1939 U.S. Open champion Byron Nelson for his humanitarian efforts. Weiss was good friends with Nelson and used to walk the 18th green at the annual Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, Texas. Nelson handed the medal down to Weiss, who shortly before his death decided he wanted to bequeath it to Zalatoris.
The manner in which Zalatoris received the medal was as emotional experience. It was wrapped and put in his locker at Bent Tree. Inside, he found the medal with a hand-written note from Weiss the day before his death.
Me and my dad just broke down and cried immediately, he said.
Now Zalatoris hopes to shed tears again on Saturday – the celebratory kind.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.