As the 2022 PGA Tour season progressed, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before lanky, bean-pole-thin Will Zalatoris would pick up that first win.
It came, at just the right time — the WGC St. Jude, first stop in the oh-so-important FedEx Playoffs.
Zalatoris was off and running, he had a truck-load of momentum heading into the BMW where he opened with 70-69 but then the worst thing that could happen, happened.
An excruciating pain in his back took him out of the tournament, out of the playoffs — the Tour’s best ball-striker and newest winner was done for the season and no one knew how long it would be before his return to the PGA Tour.
Back issues are something to be taken seriously — ask Fred Couples, whose back limited him to just one major championship and his swing and style had multiple majors written all over it.
Zalatoris was diagnosed with not one, but two herniated discs in his back after that withdrawal at the BMW. The timing was horrible. With that St. Jude win he was No. 1 in the FedEx standings and a serious contender to win the $18 million that eventually went to Rory McIlroy. He also lost his spot on the Presidents Cup team.
He was sidelined a total of 137 days, the 138th was on the first tee Thursday at the Tournament of Champions.
One of the things he did was consult with Dr. Greg Rose at the Titleist Performance Institute. Will had to find a way to help his back withstand a 20-event PGA Tour schedule this season.
“We spent a lot of time understanding the pressures on my golf swing and understanding how I push off my right side,” Zalatoris said earlier this week. “I do it later than a lot of guys, so what that does for someone with a lot of side bend is that gets my right hip high and my spine is tilted back, and so as Dr. Rose said, ‘Duh, no wonder I had a back issue.’”
Will was in the old-school “Reverse-C” position after he released the club.
Zalatoris said that his issue was a “motor pattern,” not a structural problem, and that his high right hip was easily addressed through a tweak in his setup.
“I basically am trying to be a little bit more centered as opposed to having the ball forward with more spine tilt at address,” he said. “I’m trying to get more centered over it and work more around my right side, so more of a turn as opposed to a lateral shift. When my right hip gets high and the spine tilts back, you’re now all of a sudden creating all that stress on your back.”
Zalatoris said he’s also playing a shorter driver (about an inch and a quarter), which allows him to turn “around the corner a little bit.” He said he hasn’t lost any speed with the equipment change, encouraging news for a player who was 13th on Tour in distance last season (314.7 yards).
Will’s initial timeline for a full recovery was 12-weeks, per his doctors. He gave it more time than that as he chose to skip Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge even though he was cleared for a full return by December 1.
After this week’s 2023 debut, Zalatoris will play an ambitious schedule — four of the next six events.
“I feel really good with everything,” said the 26-year-old who is considered one of the Tour’s best ball strikers. “I had a couple really great sessions at home. I’ve learned a lot about my body, probably more than I think I ever wanted to. But the speed’s the same, everything feels really good. So just keep doing what we’re doing and let the next win get in the way.”
Z-Man’s First Round: Will was off to a less-than-stellar start Thursday. He bunkered his approach at the first hole then missed a five-footer for par. He then clicked off seven straight pars before he made his first birdie of 2023 at the par five ninth. He then played steady golf over his final nine holes with four birdies — including back-to-back at 17 and 18 to finish with a four-under par 69. He was tied for 23rd but it was a nice start after more than four months on the shelf. Will looked totally pain-free and his swing was free-flowing.
On Friday, Will added another 69 to his scorecard and was tied for 18th at eight-under par at the halfway mark.