Zalatoris has made a name for himself with second-place finish at Masters

When it took all of his first 35 minutes on the course for Hideki Matsuyama’s four-shot lead to get slashed down to one swing Sunday afternoon, all those forecasts for a Roman chariot race finish were looking just fabulous. At least seven players had to consider themselves back in the hunt. Cherio.

Never really happened like that, of course.

In truth, any actual stalking for much of the day came down to one guy whose name no one could spell when the week began. Will Zalatoris came to his first Masters overjoyed at the prospect of satisfying one of his young life’s goals: being here. But through much of the afternoon, he was Matsuyama’s primary adversary, creeping within a shot of the lead after two holes and teasing much of the day.

Like everyone else, he couldn’t catch him. Finishing with a 2-under 70 — and despite three bogeys — Zalatoris finished second, just one swing behind the unassailable Matsuyama after his harmless closing bogey. If crowning the first Asian champion at the Masters dominates the headlines, the skinny rookie with the Jeff Spicoli hair gets his own star turn, runner-up in his first try.

“An absolute dream,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming about it for about 20 years, I thought I did a really good job this week of just enjoying the moment but not letting it get to me.”

Caption
Will Zalatoris and his caddie Ryan Goble celebrate after Zalatoris made a birdie on the eighth hole during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Will Zalatoris and his caddie Ryan Goble celebrate after Zalatoris made a birdie on the eighth hole during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Caption
Will Zalatoris and his caddie Ryan Goble celebrate after Zalatoris made a birdie on the eighth hole during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

As he did all week, Zalatoris scrambled all over the place Sunday. Through 3-1/2 rounds, he made up for his seven bogeys with 15 birdies and an eagle. But after bogeying Nos. 10 and 12 with three-putts, he was thrown off the scent. Matsuyama was in the process of birdieing Nos. 8 and 9, pushing the lead to five that no one — not Xander Schauffele, not Jordan Spieth and not Zalatoris — could overcome. With two late birdies, Zalatoris was the lone player to card four sub-par rounds.

“I wanted to be in this position, my entire life,” he said. “I don’t need to shy away from it now. I’ve made it this far. Why be timid?”

And he left the place with a sense that he could do this again. He is only 24.

At 6-feet-2 and 165 pounds with a 28-inch waist, Zalatoris almost vanishes when he turns sideways. But using the arm-lock swing modeled by Bryson DeChambeau, he generated all the distance that Augusta National requires. He was under-par all week, going 70-68-71 before Sunday. And he seemed to be enjoying it all. When asked Saturday about the unlikely prospects for being tied for second going into the final round, he replied, “Cool.”

But he also went to some lengths during the week expounding on his good fortune to even be on the grounds. Holder of the Arnold Palmer scholarship when he was attending Wake Forest, he left school before his final semester to turn pro in 2018 and then promptly bombed out of the first stage of the Q-school for the Korn Ferry Tour. His world ranking dropped to 2,004th place, his rise in the time since almost unfathomable.

“This game is very fickle,” said Zalatoris, who, in his first major last year, tied for sixth in the U.S. Open. “If you’re not mentally tough, it will get to you. Going through a year and change of Monday qualifiers for the Korn Ferry qualifiers and not being successful, and then finally getting a couple that I qualified for, and getting status on the Korn Ferry Tour and seeing guys on my Walker Cup team (Collin Morikawa, Cameron Champ and Scottie Schleffer) being successful wasn’t frustrating.

“It was actually motivating and exciting because I knew I could do what they were doing.”

He left the galleries with a memory, birdieing No. 15 and dropping an eight-footer for another on No. 17 in his. When he saved par on No. 18 with a testy 15-footer, he received a standing ovation that sounded like he might have won the thing. It was a good feeling to take home.

“I can play the best players in the world,” he said.