Healthy, dialed-in Will Zalatoris trends entering Players Championship

Golfer Will Zalatoris is different these days, not quite as long off the tee or fast through the ball, but perhaps wiser and hungrier after missing much of 2023.

Back issues and eventual surgery changed him, yet some things remain the same, too.

He has not lost his ability to rise to the occasion during the sport’s toughest tests.

A runner-up finish Feb. 18 at Tiger Woods’ Genesis Invitational at Riviera earned him a spot in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where Zalatoris tied for fourth heading toward this week’s Players Championship.

Pete Dye’s layout on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass requires ball-striking prowess, short game precision and nerve while punishing mistakes. Winds can turns the course into a battle for survival, one Zalatoris relishes.

“It’s a place I love,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite golf courses all year. It’s one of the purest golf courses we play on top of that, so looking forward to the challenge.”

The 27-year-old is just five official tournaments into his return from the wilderness, but riding a wave of momentum into the 50th edition of the PGA Tour’s showcase event.

A missed cut Jan. 12 at the Sony Open in Hawaii followed by a tie for 34th at The American Express appeared to signal a long road ahead.

It also was significant improvement from his return at Woods’ Hero World Challenge in December. An opening 81 was hard to watch as he struggled to a last-place finish by 9 strokes in the 20-player field.

Zalatoris’ progress took a leap with a tie for 13th in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. At Riviera, he could have won for the first time since his maiden victory at the 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship if not for Hideki Matsuyama’s historic final-round 62.

A field of 144 players at TPC Sawgrass, including 47 of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, will demand the best of a player to even contend for a winner’s check of $4.5 million, the largest on Tour.

World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, also 27, is the returning champion and clear-cut favorite following his dominant final-round performance this past Sunday at the API.

Zalatoris wouldn’t bet against him, either.

“The kid’s been a world beater his entire career — junior golf, amateur golf, college golf and now on the professional level,” he said.

During Saturday’s third round, Zalatoris was on the verge of seizing command himself until two double-bogeys on the final four holes turned a 5-shot lead into a 2-shot deficit by day’s end at one of the Tour’s most challenging stops.

“That’s just Bay Hill,” he said. “I get it going and I hit two bad golf shots the next thing I turn a 5-under round into 1-under.”

TPC Sawgrass can turns rounds upside down, too.

Zalatoris broke par-72 only once, with a third-round 71, and shot a closing 77 during his 2023 Players appearance.

But he would play just one more event before doctors decided he needed surgery to address back issues dating to 2022. He tied for 26th at TPC Sawgress that year and finished 21st in 2021, two starts before his breakout runner-up performance at the Masters.

The performance at Augusta National Golf Club identified Zalatoris as a rising star, but also a bit of a late bloomer at 24 on a Tour where elite talents such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were established by the same age.

A shaky putter had been Zalatoris’ bugaboo dating to his days at Wake Forest, but he managed to counteract it with peerless iron play and plenty of distance off the tee — his average of 307.4 yards in 2021 ranked 23rd on Tour.

Back surgery changed the calculus.

Zalatoris’ recovery was arduous; even walking the stairs at his house required undivided attention.

Rather than sit around, he finished his degree at Wake Forest. As his mobility improved, he traveled, including to Wimbledon with his wife. Eventually, he returned to the practice range and then to competitive golf with a pep in his step.

“I came in with really no expectations this year, in terms of my body,” he said. “I had never gone through an eight-month recovery, but I knew that I felt better.”

The rust has since melted away.

Zalatoris also plays a game with which he is somewhat unfamiliar. He averages 294.2 yards off the tee compared to 314.7 in 2022 after an offseason building his body. His clubhead speed is down 5 miles per hour and his ball speed 8 mph slower.

While his body is ahead of schedule, Zalatoris’ mind has remained in the right spot.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to be my entire career, to play with the best in the world and play on these golf courses that have a lot of history,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at