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Will Zalatoris couldn't imagine last summer that he'd be the first player of the week scheduled to speak with the media at one of the PGA Tour's most iconic stops.
But that's where the 24-year-old found himself on Tuesday ahead of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as one of the pre-tournament favorites. It has been a remarkable -- and rapid -- ascent for the former Wake Forest All-America.
"I'm playing with house money, basically," Zalatoris said Tuesday.
He is one of the few who can admit to some rare good fortune during the coronavirus pandemic.
Toiling away on the Korn Ferry Tour seeking to earn his PGA Tour card, Zalatoris wasn't planning on attempting to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Open. The event then got postponed from June until September due to the pandemic, giving Zalatoris time to earn a spot in the year's second major by leading the KFT points list in mid-August.
Zalatoris parlayed the U.S. Open exemption the following month into a tie for sixth place at Winged Foot, highlighted by a hole-in-one in the first round. The feel-good story kept building when he tied for eighth in the Dominican Republic the following week.
A momentary bump in the road with a missed cut at the Sanderson Farms Championship was followed by a T5 and a T16 in his next two starts. That earned Zalatoris a special temporary membership from the PGA Tour for the remainder of the 2020-21 season.
With unlimited sponsors exemptions in his back pocket, Zalatoris enters this week with a T52, T7 and a T17 in his past three starts.
Ranked 2,006th in the world at the start of 2019 and 672nd entering 2020, Zalatoris cracked the top 50 for the first time this week. He's the 49th-ranked player in the world and the fourth betting favorite this week at +1800 by DraftKings -- behind the only three top-20 players in the field: Patrick Cantlay (+750), Daniel Berger (+1400) and Paul Casey (+1400).
Despite having yet to win on the PGA Tour, Zalatoris is favored ahead of major champions Jason Day, Francesco Molinari and Jordan Spieth.
Obviously, it's exciting," Zalatoris said of cracking the top 50. "Just keep getting better and keep on keeping on. So it's been a fun year and we'll keep on going."
It will keep going until at least the middle of August. But for Zalatoris to reach the FedEx Cup Playoffs, he'll have to find that first Tour victory along the way. Special temporary members are not eligible for the playoffs without one.
"I could finish second the next 25 weeks in a row and still not make the FedEx Cup playoffs," he said. "So, every week I've got a chance to go out and tee it up and hopefully win and get myself in those playoffs.
"But that's kind of what I said, I'm playing with house money. I know my card's locked for next year and the only way I can move up I guess is by winning."
Zalatoris said he's playing with an "all or nothing" attitude while also trying to gain experience and continually put himself in contention.
If that first victory came this week, it would hold a particularly special meaning for Zalatoris.
Born in the Bay Area, Zalatoris found his love for golf playing with his father at the Cal Club, where even at a young age his golf swing caught the eye of members such as 14-time PGA Tour winner Ken Venturi. Zalatoris went on to win the U.S. Junior Amateur title in 2014, was named the ACC Player of the Year in 2017 and played for the U.S. Walker Cup team that year.
Zalatoris turned professional in 2018. The first cut he made? At Pebble Beach while playing with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst Tony Romo.
"We were playing behind Bill Murray and obviously coming straight out of college and being kind of thrown into that," Zalatoris recalled of playing with Romo, who he remained friends with. "I actually played well enough on Thursday and Friday (to make the cut). Seeing my name, I guess, at one point being tied for the lead on Friday and fell apart at Pebble on the weekend. It's stuff like that I'll remember forever."
Zalatoris wasn't necessarily expecting to jump 100 spots in the world rankings in a sixth-month span and enter this week favored over junior counterparts including Spieth. Then again, expectations have always been high for the blonde-haired kid who first caught the eye of a major champion when he was around 5 years old.
"It's just part of it," Zalatoris said when asked if cracking the top 50 was a main goal of his. "When I was 7 years old, it's not like my goal was to get in the top 50 in the world.
"We all dream about winning a major. Kids are making putts on the practice putting green to win the Masters. This is just kind of a step in the road, and I'm enjoying every minute of it and making sure that I am enjoying it."
(Field Level Media)