Masters rookie wonders Will Zalatoris and Robert MacIntyre throw Ryder Cup selection wide open

Robert MacIntyre -  Masters rookie wonders Will Zalatoris and Robert MacIntyre throw Ryder Cup selection wide open - REUTERS
Robert MacIntyre - Masters rookie wonders Will Zalatoris and Robert MacIntyre throw Ryder Cup selection wide open - REUTERS

So much for the old Augusta adage that supposedly demands Masters debutants quietly go learn the idiosyncrasies of the National, while allowing the experienced campaigners to hog the Sunday spotlight Between them, and to varying degrees, two 24-year-olds in Will Zalatoris and Bob MacIntyre played such active roles at the season’s first major that they not only underlined their credentials as future green-jacketeers but more immediately to appear in this year’s Ryder Cup.

Zalatoris was the obvious rookie star of the show, whittling away Hideki Matsuyama’s six-shot lead with seven to play, down to one in the increasingly nervy climax. The American’s reaction said it all. His outright runner-up’s position was the best finish by a first-timer at Augusta since Dan Pohl 39 years ago, but Zalatoris was trying to emulate Fuzzy Zoeller’s historic feat of three years before. “The fact that I’m frustrated that I finished second in my third major says something,” Zalatoris said.

Certainly, it will scream plenty to Steve Stricker. When he was appointed United States captain in February 2019, Zalatoris was ranked 2004th in the world with nowhere to compete but the mini tours. Stricker would just about have heard of the young blond-haired Californian by dint of him winning the US Junior Amateur title in 2014 and playing on the triumphant 2017 Walker Cup team at LA Country Club, where he won all three of his matches against Great Britain and Ireland.

Stricker’s ears might well have pricked up when rumours circulated of the Owen Wilson lookalike pushing the US captain, Spider Miller, into the pool at the after-party. Little wonder his nickname is “Showtime”. But then the screen went blank as far as Zalatoris was concerned. Great young amateurs come and all too often they disappear in pro prime-time, and it was not until a tie for sixth at last year’s US Open when Zalatoris earned wider recognition. By then he was a winner on the Korn Ferry Tour, but because of the pandemic and the archaic PGA Tour membership rules, the feeder league to the main circuit was closed off.

Zalatoris has been forced to rely on invites, but has accepted the challenge with such vigour that he arrived in Georgia on the back of five top-10s on the PGA Tour. At Sawgrass HQ, they will be scrambling to find a loophole to grant full membership so he can take his place in the FedEx Cup playoffs (he is a marketing department’s dream) but, fortunately for Stricker, he is eligible for Whistling Straits.

At 23rd in the standings, Zalatoris still has some climbing to do, but if he carries on in this vein, his candidature will be irresistible. Stricker has six wild cards at his disposal and Zalatoris, up to world No 27, already looks extremely worthy. It will also help that Jordan Spieth is an advocate. The three-time major winner hurtled up to 12th in the list with his tie for third and that, on the back of his first victory in four years at the Texas Open the week before, makes Spieth basically certain of his place.

Will Zalatoris - Masters rookie wonders Will Zalatoris and Robert MacIntyre throw Ryder Cup selection wide open - GETTY IMAGES
Will Zalatoris - Masters rookie wonders Will Zalatoris and Robert MacIntyre throw Ryder Cup selection wide open - GETTY IMAGES

He clearly believes that Zalatoris, who he has known for a long time, should also be in the team room. “Having seen Will progress and his confidence level just continue to progress over the last year and a half, I’m not surprised,” Spieth said. “It’s awesome. It’s going to move him significantly up on that Ryder Cup points list. Does he remind me of myself? We have similarities. We train together and have practised and played together a lot over the last year. It’s funny, I got asked about him just before last year’s US Open — and it’s just coming full scale now.”

MacIntyre also played in that 2017 Walker Cup, demolishing future Tour winner — and rival to Bryson DeChambeau’s longest-hitter tag — Cameron Champ 6&4. The left-hander may come from Oban, a small town in the west Highlands, but the world No 44 is fearless on the big stage.

He has a European Tour title in his locker, a tie for sixth on his Open debut two years ago and now a tie for 12th at the Masters. Three weeks ago, he halved with Dustin Johnson at the WGC Match Play before advancing from group stages in Austin at the expense of the world No 1.

The shinty player adores team environs and, standing just one position outside Europe’s nine automatic berths, is getting ever more central on Padraig Harrington’s radar. Bernard Gallacher, the three-time captain, feels his countryman is made for golf’s most intense arena.

“You always want a good putter on your team and he is certainly that,” he said. “He keeps the ball in play and is calm. It’s all about temperament and he looks unflappable and like he is enjoying himself in these big events. There’s no reason why he can’t make this team.”

The Irish captain knows that strokeplay in April can have very little influence on matchplay in September and will not yet be fretting about the swing issues currently troubling Rory McIlroy, but still he will be satisfied with Jon Rahm’s tie for fifth and Justin Rose’s seventh. Yet MacIntyre offers something different, something enticing, something fresh ... as does Zalatoris.

What a Sunday showdown in Wisconsin that could be.