AUGUSTA, Ga. — Maybe the first hint that Will Zalatoris had what it took came when he was 6 and Ken Venturi went over to him on a driving range to show him a grip that he hasn’t changed since. Or maybe it was at 11, when a pro named David Price said he could be great if he put in the work.
Or maybe it was Sunday, when the 24-year-old finished alone in second at the Masters.
Either way, the secret is out now. A skinny kid with mop-top blonde hair and an unflappable sense of California cool finished only one shot behind Hideki Matsuyama at Augusta National, his final round of 2-under 70 getting him to 9 under for the week and into the spotlight for as long as he wants.
“I’ve wanted to be in this position my entire life,” Zalatoris said. “I don’t need to shy away from it now. I’ve made it this far. Why now be timid? I thought I did a really good job of enjoying the moment but not letting it get to me, too.”
The ACC Player of the Year in 2017 and All-American as a junior at Wake Forest, Zalatoris says he’s watched Sunday at the Masters 24 times, which is probably no more than a slight understatement. First, while it is possible that he watched the 1997 final round when Tiger Woods won the first of his five green jackets, it should be noted that Zalatoris was about 8 months old when that happened. And he didn’t watch this year’s final round because, well, he was playing instead.
But let these numbers illustrate how much his life has changed, and how quickly it happened: In April 2019, he finished 61st in an event called the Dormie Network Classic and earned $1,408. In April 2021, he finished second at the Masters and earned $1,242,000.
“I just took as many mental images in my mind because I’ve watched this tournament for as long as I can remember,” Zalatoris said. “And the fact that I was a part of it is pretty special, and the fact that I contended is even cooler.”
If he was an unknown to start the week, he isn’t anymore.
His first made putt of the week got a few polite claps from about two dozen patrons behind the first green, most of whom frankly were probably there to see one of his playing partners on Thursday — two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer. His last putt of the week came with thousands of patrons surrounding the 18th green, regaling him with a standing ovation and a roar.
“I’ve watched him a bit on television the last few months or year or so, and already thought he was special on TV,” Langer said Thursday after that opening round. “And then I experienced him in person today, and I would definitely agree. He’s going to be one of the stars for the future, I think. Certainly has the capability. You look at him, he’s fairly skinny, but man, does he hit the golf ball.”
This was no fluke, either.
Zalatoris — who, if nothing else, secured his invitation back to the 2022 Masters this week — was in the hunt every step of the way.
Matsuyama shot a 3-under 69 on Thursday; Zalatoris shot a 70. He actually was two shots better than the eventual Masters champion through 36 holes, after a 68 on Friday. Matsyuama really won the tournament on Saturday, shooting a 65 that put him in full control and left him four shots clear of his nearest challengers, Zalatoris included.
Thing is, the kid never went away. He opened birdie-birdie on Sunday and got within one of the lead, and finished in that same spot, one shot away.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” Zalatoris said. “I think, if anything, it’s just the fact that I’m one shot short. It’s just kind of sitting right in front of me, thinking through where I could have found that one or two shots, really. That’s just golf every single week. You always think about those one or two.”
“But like I said, the fact I put myself in contention and was able to handle it and be in the final group in my third major in my entire career is obviously really exciting.”
There is that element as well: He’s shown a propensity to come up big in the big moments. This is already his second top-six at a major, after he tied for sixth at the U.S. Open last year, 11 shots back of runaway winner Bryson DeChambeau but finishing with the same 72-hole score as world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
“I can play with the best players in the world,” Zalatoris said.
Nobody at Augusta National this week would argue.