rom a state where everything’s bigger, the future looks huge for Will Zalatoris. He spoke to Robin Barwick. Zalatoris talks of having “tailed” Jordan Spieth through the junior golf circuit in Texas when they were kids. Not a bad early role model, rival and friend.
“Jordan was basically winning everything in Dallas for what seemed like forever,” starts Zalatoris, the 25-year-old who is settling into his second season on the PGA Tour, and who is three years younger than Spieth. “It goes back to when Jordan was around 12 and I was nine and I tailed him for a while. Seeing all of his success since then has been a lot of fun.”
Much of the time, the two kids were honing their games just six miles apart, in north Dallas: Spieth at Brookhaven Country Club and Zalatoris at Bent Tree CC. When Spieth was 14 and Zalatoris was 11 the two boys played 18 together at Bent Tree. Spieth sent his opening drive out right, then found a bunker but holed a 30-foot putt to save par (some habits die hard). Then he went on a birdie run, scored 63 and broke a long-standing course record.
“Jordan was always different,” says Zalatoris. “People could see that he was going to grow up to be really, really good—not that anyone could anticipate him winning the Masters at the age of 21—but we all knew Jordan was going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
It was in 2015 that Spieth set a birdie record at the Masters (28 over 72 holes) in becoming its youngest champ since Tiger Woods in 1997.
“Quite often I was runner-up behind Jordan,” adds Zalatoris. “I got him in some individual rounds but that was it. There was one time in the Byron Nelson Junior when
I beat him in a round: I shot 71 to his 72, but then Jordan shot 62-69 and won the tournament by nine. That was about as close as I came to beating him as a junior, and it wasn’t very close.
“It literally took me until the  U.S. Open at Winged Foot to actually beat Jordan in a tournament—and that is not an exaggeration or a lie.”
Spieth missed the cut at Winged Foot, mired in the depths of a slump at the time, while Zalatoris was still “Will Who?” at the start of the week, a young prospect trying to force his way onto the PGA Tour. He finished in a tie for sixth though—spurred by a hole-in-one in the first round—for his first top-10 on the PGA Tour, and all of a sudden people started talking about Zalatoris as if they had been warning you about him for years.
“I have not told Jordan about [beating him at] Winged Foot,” adds the modest Zalatoris. “Jordan is a bit like Michael Jordan in as much as you don’t want to talk smack with him or tell him anything that might get him riled up.
“Maybe if we were playing for a little currency at home we might talk a little smack, but with his putter and with his unlimited range on the greens I need to pick my moments very carefully if I am going to talk smack.
“I love the guy and he has been a great friend and he is super inspiring to me, to see his success and to see how hard he works.”
It turns out that tailing Spieth is a pretty solid pathway to success, and there are a pair of striking parallels between the two’s early careers in particular. Spieth was Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour in 2013, having picked up his first pro victory at the John Deere Classic aged just 19, making him the youngest winner on the tour since Ralph Guldahl in 1931. Zalatoris followed suit and picked up the Arnold Palmer Award as Rookie of the Year this past season, becoming the first non-member of the tour to win the award since Charles Howell III in 2001.
Then there are the Masters debuts. Spieth finished tied as runner-up on his Masters debut back in 2014, having held a share of the third-round lead with eventual winner Bubba Watson. Seven years later, in April of this year, Zalatoris delivered an equally stunning performance to finish second to Hideki Matsuyama at Augusta National. Still without his PGA Tour card at the time, Zalatoris was the only player in the entire field to shoot four rounds under par—his 70-68-71-70 leaving him just a single shot shy of Japan’s first men’s major champ.
“Having seen him progress and his confidence level just continue to rise over the last year and a half, I’m not surprised,” said Spieth after the Masters, where he finished in a tie for third, two shots behind his old sparring partner. “It is very difficult to come out in the position he was in, in the final group, it’s just a different feeling. Then in this wind, to control his high ball flight and to make putts on these greens when you don’t see other greens like this, it’s extremely impressive. It’s awesome, but I’m not surprised.”
Recalls Zalatoris: “I enjoyed every moment out there. While I was playing I was also just sitting back and appreciating the history, and particularly on the back nine I would think of spots where players had hit famous shots, like Phil from the trees on 13, Jack making the putt on 15, Tiger multiple times on 16.
“If anything, it was freeing for me as I didn’t let the weight of trying to win the Masters get to me. I just played golf and kept pinching myself and telling myself how cool it was. Don’t get me wrong: when it came down to Sunday I was absolutely focused, but being able to appreciate the moment helped. It felt like every day it was building up, from hitting the first tee shot and playing with Bernhard Langer, to working my way into the final group, to playing decently on Saturday to still give myself a chance, and then it was Sunday at Augusta, a moment I have always dreamed of.
“It was funny because it felt like I was playing in the Masters but at the same time it didn’t. Was I surprised by how I felt? Absolutely! But it was like, hey, I have wanted to be here for so long, why shy away from it now?”
“He is fun to watch to tell you the truth,” says Langer, the Masters champ of 1985 and 1993, who played the first two rounds of the 2021 Masters with Zalatoris. “He is an unbelievably good player for his age. He is as skinny as a rail when you look at him but man can he pound that golf ball. He hits his 3-wood further than I hit my driver. When you have that kind of power and also the spin he gets with that clubhead speed, you can really tear courses apart. We are going to hear a lot more about this young man.”
Eric Hutto, President and Chief Operating Officer at Unisys, is also convinced we are going to hear a lot more about Zalatoris.
“Not only is Will Zalatoris a great golfer, but also a great person who we are proud to have be a part of our golf program and represent the Unisys brand,” says Hutto. “Will aligns greatly with our company theme of ‘Building Better,’ which we continue to pursue on behalf of our clients, associates and communities around the world.”
Zalatoris finished his freshman year with a scoring average of 70.07, the lowest ever for a freshman Deacon
It must have helped Zalatoris that he has grown up with high expectations swirling around his ability. Having attracted attention from a host of the country’s top college golf programs, he was offered the Arnold Palmer Scholarship by Wake Forest, which is offered to one golfer each year.
“I saw a kid who could really, really hit a golf ball and I knew we could figure out how to make him a better putter,” recalls Jerry Haas, Head Coach of the men’s golf team at Wake Forest. “The rest is history, Will has done really well. He started at Wake playing unbelievable golf, shooting 65s, 64s, 63s. It was like, ‘holy cow, this is the best freshman in the country.’”
Zalatoris finished his freshman year with a scoring average of 70.07, the lowest ever for a freshman Demon Deacon. His four-year average of 70.44 remains a Wake Forest record.
“I visited Wake and loved how small it was, and yet it is a top-30 academic institution,” says Zalatoris, who was awarded the Arnold Palmer Scholarship in 2014. “It has the history with Mr. Palmer and all the great players that followed him there, so when I got offered the scholarship by Coach Haas my decision was almost made for me: how would I say ‘No’ and why would I want to go anywhere else? Receiving the high honor of Mr. Palmer’s scholarship was incredible.”
Zalatoris did not get the opportunity to meet Palmer, who died in 2016, but he did receive a letter of congratulations from the Wake Forest legend on winning the U.S. Junior Amateur title in 2014 at the Club at Carlton Woods, Texas, soon after accepting his scholarship to Wake.
“I got a signed letter from Mr. Palmer after I won the U.S. Junior title,” recalls Zalatoris, who was 17 at the time. “It has been misreported that I smudged Mr. Palmer’s signature—giving the impression I ruined the signature—but I absolutely did not. When I got the typed letter, with the umbrella logo, Mr. Palmer said congratulations and that it was phenomenal that I was on his scholarship at Wake Forest, and he signed the letter. I put my thumb on the “r” of “Palmer” to see if the signature was real just because it was such a perfect signature and I wasn’t sure.
“As we all know Mr. Palmer signed everything, and when I lifted my thumb from the “r” it took a little bit of the ink and I remember my mom looking at me, giving me the evil eyes and the temperature in the room dropped about 25 degrees, like, ‘I can’t believe you just did that’. She said, ‘You are not going to look after this letter until you get your own house.’ The letter is still framed and at my parents’ house.”
The U.S. Junior Amateur title is something else Zalatoris shares in common with Spieth, who became only the second golfer—after Tiger Woods—to win the Junior title twice, in 2009 and 2011, three years before Zalatoris.
This season he is as a full member of the PGA Tour, Zalatoris already has a pair of top-20 finishes in the fall to earn him a top-40 ranking in the FedExCup at the time of writing. His results are solid and his form is promising.
“I want more and I know that there’s more in there,” he says. “I definitely feel my first win could come soon.”
If the parallels with Spieth continue it won’t be long, but make no mistake: Zalatoris is playing his own game—and from what we can see, there’s no limit to it.