Examining Will Zalatoris’ tremendous lead after the PGA Tour’s budding star earns his first career victory

Seventeen months ago, no one who follows golf casually knew of Will Zalatoris. Over the weekend at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, as Zalatoris tried to take down Austrian Sepp Straka in the first FedEx Cup Playoffs event, those same people demanded that he Finally achieve the triumph that his game predicted for him throughout those 17 months. This is what it’s like to live like a budding professional golf star in 2022.

The Zalatoris story begins long before the 2021 Masters, but for the purposes of golf as a spectator sport on the biggest stage, that’s where Zalatoris was introduced to the world. This kinda misses, but he almost won that Masters. Hideki Matsuyama beat him by a single shot after Zalatoris played the last four holes at 2 under while Matsuayma played them at 3 over.

Thus began a year and a half streak of close calls. Two more top-10 finishes at majors in 2021, followed by two second-place finishes at majors in 2022, one of them in a tiebreaker to Justin Thomas, as well as five other top-six finishes on the PGA Tour this season. Zalatoris summed it up nicely during his post-tournament press conference in Memphis.

“It’s a bit hard to say ‘about time’ when it’s your second year on Tour, but it’s about time,” Zalatoris said.

Golf is dumb. Zalatoris’ performance at St. Jude was not the best of the last two years. He wasn’t even close. In terms of strokes gained, Zalatoris was better at the 2020 US Open in Winged Foot, the aforementioned 2021 Masters, this year’s Masters, this year’s PGA Championship, this year’s US Open, June Memorial and the Farmers Insurance Open in January, which he lost in a playoff to Luke List. So of course he loses all seven tournaments and wins this one. When top players say they’re going to keep knocking on the door and thinking it’s going to go down, that’s more or less what they mean.

“I think every time you put yourself in contention you’re going to learn something about yourself,” he said. “The first second at the Masters was life-changing because it put me in a position to play here as much as I wanted and it put me on the map. The second at the PGA was kind of an affirmation that it wasn’t a fluke week, and the third at the US Open gave me a lot more confidence that I can win a major, I can win here. It was just a matter of time and obviously this was my week.”

Zalatoris has played just 56 PGA Tour events, and is now six shots away from five wins, including three major championships. Think about that for a minute. Six shots from five wins, including three majors in his first 56 starts on the PGA Tour. Fittingly, he’s someone who almost put those numbers together in its first 56 starts which makes me so optimistic about the trajectory of Zalatoris’ career. Let’s do a blind statistical test to dive into this point.

SG off the tee

0.56

0.53

SG approach

0.95

0.90

SG around the green

0.04

0.14

put SG

-0.11

0.00

Green SG t-shirt

1.54

1.57

rounds 203 219
victories 5 1
Big leagues two 0
top 10 6 6

Player 1 is Collin Morikawa and Player 2 is Zalatoris. Until you get to the wins and higher part, they’re almost identical, and yet we’re not talking about them being in the same stratosphere. Most of this is because we crazily overvalue big wins, especially early in a player’s career. Part of this is because we undervalue non-earnings, of which Zalatoris has had plenty. All of this would imply, however, that we should probably talk about them, at least in terms of what they accomplish from now on, more as synonyms.

When Zalatoris hit a 10-foot shot on the 72nd hole on Sunday that could have won him the golf tournament, he turned to someone behind him, presumably his caddy, and yelled, “Now what are you going to say?!” It was clearly an exclamation of the heat of the moment (which you always love to see), but it did underscore a bit of the confusion about what Zalatoris is as a player.

While it’s true that his putting stroke on short putts looks like his elbows are being shot, his overall putting performance is solid, if not above average. This season, his strokes gained are positive, which, when you hit the golf ball like Zalatoris, is good enough to win multiple times a year. He’s also one of the best setback putters on the PGA Tour (he’s currently T3 in approach putting performance). However, because the stroke sometimes seems so grotesque, perhaps casual fans or even some outlets have developed a narrative about Zalatoris that isn’t actually true and part of that is likely to answer what he was responding to. Again, all of this just makes me more excited about where he’s headed.

Joseph LaManga posed a question during the final round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship on Sunday that fascinates me. If you had to pick a player’s career earnings as of January 1, 2023, who would you pick? Age weeds out guys like Rory McIlroy and probably even Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. We’re assuming LIV Golf earnings don’t count, so this excludes Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka.

You want a young star who is able to take advantage of the influx of cash the PGA Tour seemingly has in the next two decades. Your real candidates are probably Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Hovland, Sam Burns, Jon Rahm, Morikawa, and Zalatoris.

I dismissed Zalatoris at first, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it might be the right answer. At least it’s not obvious that you’d pick Scheffler or Hovland or Morikawa or Rahm over Zalatoris, which is kind of surprising for someone who didn’t pick up a PGA Tour win 24 hours ago. And though when it comes to taking Zalatoris, with anything worthwhile at stake, I’m still not sure I would. However, the part that should worry the rest of the world for the next 10 or 15 years is that I’m not sure I wouldn’t either.

Rick Gehman and Kyle Porter recap the 2022 FedEx St Jude Championship. Follow and listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts Y Spotify.

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