‘This is what I’ve missed:’ How Will Zalatoris got his health and swagger back


FOR WILL ZALATORIS, the walk up to the Riviera Country Club clubhouse two weeks ago carried with it a wide range of emotions. Every step was as much a point of pride as it was a reminder of a feeling he knows well, but hadn’t felt in a while.

“I’ve got a lot of silver in my house, so getting another second place doesn’t really sit that well,” Zalatoris said after finishing 3 shots behind the winner, Hideki Matsuyama. “Coming back from what I had to go through physically, we’re [headed] in the right direction.”

Zalatoris had just played his best golf since returning from a microdiscectomy on two herniated discs in his back that kept him out most of 2023. But once again, his best had only been good enough for second place. Since turning professional in 2018, Zalatoris has six top-10 finishes at major championships (in 13 starts), including runner-up finishes at the 2021 Masters, the 2022 U.S. Open and the 2022 PGA Championship.

As he finished with a par on 18 on Sunday at the Genesis Invitational, Zalatoris hugged his trainer Landan Webster, who had tears running down his face. Zalatoris’ wife, Caitlyn, couldn’t hide a smile while she looked at her phone and pointed out that this result meant Zalatoris would likely be in the Players Championship field.

“It’s crazy to be this emotional about a second place,” Webster told ESPN after the round. “But he’s gone through so much.”

“I’m really proud of how I played,” Zalatoris said. “2023 was a bad movie, but so far things are progressing nicely. … This is what I’ve missed.”

The long journey from back surgery required swing changes, equipment alterations and even a shift in perspective. Now, he’s armed with a broomstick putter that nearly rises to his sternum and a different swing from the one that placed him among the best players in majors over the past three years. But the fierce attitude that got him to seventh in the world in 2022 remains unchanged. Zalatoris is officially back.

TROY DENTON KNEW something had clicked. From the back of the driving range at Maridoe Golf Club in Dallas, where Denton’s office is located, to the course itself, Zalatoris’ swing coach saw an attitude shift in how the 27-year-old was playing during the week leading up to the Genesis Invitational.

“I could tell he had his swagger back,” Denton told ESPN. “It was just a matter of time.”

Denton had always thought it would take Zalatoris around five events to feel fully comfortable, so the slow start to the year did not faze him. For as much as he and the rest of Zalatoris’ team had attempted to give him ample time in recovering and returning to pro golf, kinks would still have to be worked out, feels would have to reestablished and the adrenaline of playing at the highest level could not be replicated anywhere else but inside the ropes.

The swagger Denton had seen in Dallas materialized in Los Angeles, where Zalatoris played like the confident version of himself the golf world had come to know a few years ago. His ballstriking was sharpening — he finished tied for second in total strokes gained and no one made more birdies than he did (22) during the tournament.

“I feel really good physically, most importantly, but like I said, it’s just going to take a little bit of time to get used to it,” Zalatoris said on Saturday. “I think being in contention is how you find out where you’re at.”

Contention is where Zalatoris quickly showed himself to be one of the best ballstrikers and players in the world when he won the tour’s rookie of the year award in 2021. At that high point, nothing seemed like it could go wrong. Until it did.

After having to pull out of the 2022 FedEx Cup playoffs following two herniated discs during the BMW Championship, Zalatoris returned to action in January 2023. Then, after seeking multiple opinions on his lingering back issues, the 26-year-old decided to undergo the microdiscectomy.

“When he got hurt, he was flushing it like nobody’s business,” Denton said. “He was so confident that it’s not like you’re gonna want to change his swing or tell him he should fear injury, you know?”

But Zalatoris’ talent had obscured an ugly truth that Dr. Michael Duffy eventually communicated: The 27-year-old has, as Denton said in layman’s terms, “an old man’s back.” The diagnosis and the subsequent surgery offered clarity on his future in the sport. It was never a question of whether Zalatoris was going to play golf at the highest level again, but rather what he and everyone around him would need to do to make that happen.

The surgery shined a light on aspects of Zalatoris’ swing that weren’t helping his back. But before any changes could be implemented, Zalatoris had to wait. Following surgery, he couldn’t swing for about five months.

The waiting wasn’t easy. As Zalatoris explained at Riviera, the time away did allow for him to have unique experiences, like travel to Wimbledon with his wife. But he still needed his golf fix. So Zalatoris would show up to Maridoe once or twice a week. From the back of the range, Denton would watch him come into the club, grab a cart and go out to the course, to watch people — his dad, friends, anyone — play.

The downtime allowed Zalatoris to simplify things but also open his mind. It’s how he ended up fiddling with several different putters to try and find something new. Zalatoris’ putting struggles had been well-documented (he ranked 103rd in strokes gained: putting during the 2021-2022 season), his putting stroke the subject of many uncomfortable close-up social media clips.

During his hiatus, Zalatoris had already ordered an armlock putter from LAB Golf, a company that makes lie-angle balanced putters and had grown in popularity following back-to-back tour wins for Lucas Glover, who played with one of their broomstick putters. The company sent Zalatoris a couple of broomstick putters too. Because the broomstick requires a completely different putting stroke, the process of familiarization requires time. For Zalatoris, who had perhaps more time than he knew what to do with, it was the perfect challenge.

“Really just being able to go out and just kind of screw around with it, it probably took three to four months to kind of figure out the blueprint for it,” Zalatoris said. “It’s just so simple. I get my setup correct and make sure my eyes are over the ball and just rock the shoulders. That something is that simple [for me] is really good.”

Soon enough, the long lever became a revelation. Eventually, Zalatoris was able to start chipping, too. A full swing seemed within reach and suddenly, the light at the end of the tunnel came into view.

“I think at first there was a dark place, a little low time,” Denton said. “But then, [the plan] gave him something to come back to.”

IF ZALATORIS HAD been looking for any advice on returning to form following a major surgery, he had just stumbled into the best possible situation. At an outing in New York during his time away from pro golf, Zalatoris found himself face to face with someone who knows a thing or two about coming back from injuries and even going through his own microdiscectomy: Tiger Woods.

At the outing, Woods didn’t provide a magic elixir, simply a word of caution: Listen to your body. Trust your instincts.

“Even with all the information out there, there is no perfect answer, so we kind of went with that motto,” Denton said. “We know we want to move more efficiently the best we can. That doesn’t mean it’s gonna be perfect, but we’re gonna do the best we can … that was huge for Will, it kind of cleared up his mind.”

Following surgery, Zalatoris became the quarterback for his own recovery. With a detailed plan from Dr. Duffy, Zalatoris got everyone on his team on the same page.

While Zalatoris went through physical therapy, Webster’s job became to observe Zalatoris and help him free up scar tissue as he progressed in his ability to do everything from walking to tying his shoes to, eventually, hinge his hips and now, swing over 40 times a round for four days in a row.

“My big role through all that was just to make sure that if something was showing a little overtrained that we could address that,” Webster said. “That we could treat it that so that the body could continue to recover to not have any plateauing or regression through the process.”

The overarching goal was to get back to swinging a golf club, but it couldn’t be the same one. Zalatoris’ swing prior to the surgery was a walking contradiction. Despite being the bedrock for his success, it was also a Petri dish for movements that, although benign for other pro golfers, put his back in danger. As Denton explained, Zalatoris’ right knee was doing what he calls “thrusting” — causing a lot of side bend and leading to potential back and postural issues, or at the very least discomfort in that part of his body. Something needed to change.

In keeping with the theme of Zalatoris’ entire recovery, Denton and short game coach Josh Gregory tried to keep things simple. The ball was moved up in his stance, and the focus became to try and go away from thrusting and more toward rotation.

“I used to time things up with my hands really well throughout the golf swing, but it wasn’t really that great on my back,” Zalatoris said. “Now I’m a lot more rotary, swinging more horizontal. Got both feet kind of flared out, which helps with not kind of locking up both hips, so I can get a bigger turn.”

A ball count, suggested by Dr. Duffy, was instituted in hopes of not wearing out his body and thus, the focus shifted to playing more golf as opposed to having more range time. Denton says their plan for the Masters warmup during tournament week will likely look like this: only 9 holes every day, lots of chipping and putting.

The equipment had to follow suit as well. Zalatoris now plays cavity back irons with more forgiveness through his bag, a shorter driver (he was playing a 46-inch driver at the peak of his 2021-2022 run) and, though his speed has diminished slightly, it’s all been done in the name of viable longevity, whatever that may look like.

“He’s pretty much back to his natural distance on the irons,” Denton said. “But the driver, it’s just much more important now to be toned down rather than bomb it. He was around 126 miles per hour swing speed [two years ago] but now he’s cruising at 117.”

Before his injury, Zalatoris was averaging 314 yards off the tee (good for 13th on the tour during the 2021-22 season) and so far now he’s averaging 290 yards per drive. Speed will come with more time and swings, but there is also a feeling that with Zalatoris’ elite ballstriking, the priority can shift to a more rotational driver swing that finds the fairway and keeps his back in good shape.

“Even though there’s changes, it’s just simplicity,” Zalatoris said of his swing. “We don’t need to overwork or overthink things, it’s just commit to what we’re doing and see what it adds up to.”

Recovery, Zalatoris said, has also become more important and, at least at the moment, takes more time. It’s why choosing how much to play, both on tour and on off-weeks, is crucial. And why Webster’s presence at tournaments became even more paramount.

On a tournament day, Webster will see Zalatoris in the morning, before any swings are taken and usually conduct a movement assessment pattern to see what needs to be worked on or loosened up by way of techniques like dry needling or radial pressure wave therapy. Often, Zalatoris might communicate what feels off, while other times like they did at Riviera, Webster was able to identify that he needed to loosen Zalatoris’ right hip and neck in a way that allowed him to turn more and free himself up.

“I want them roughly on swing one when they get out to the range to have everything doing what it should do,” Webster said. “So there’s no having to take 10 swings to get this thing moving.”

Webster will walk a few holes with Zalatoris and try to pick up any things that a physical limitation — not a swing mechanic issue — may have affected. Now more than ever, his goal is to ensure that Zalatoris’ body is always prepared to swing his new swing as intended without any hindrance or irritation that could result in a return to bad swing habits. The reality of Zalatoris’ situation has made management and maintenance far more essential than trying to find catch-all solutions.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that there’s just, there’s no magical thing that’s not gonna make his back hurt,” Denton said. “So we’re all trying to take every day on its own rather than being like, what’s next? Just enjoy doing what he’s doing now. We don’t know, Riviera could be his last good finish. So he’s just living in the right now and loving what he is doing right now.”

BEFORE ZALATORIS HAD to step away from the golf world, a trend about his game was becoming an adage: When the courses got tougher and the stage became bigger, Zalatoris played his best golf.

“He has the gift of harder,” Denton said. “When it’s a harder course, harder conditions, he’s just going to play better. It’s funny because he could make a million birdies, but when you don’t have to make birdies, he can beat you pretty bad because he’s such a God-given natural ballstriker.” Despite all the changes, Zalatoris’ mindset hasn’t shifted in that regard. Winning on tour would do plenty for his confidence and his résumé, but Zalatoris is fixated on the four major tournaments that have eluded him so far in his career.

“I’m really excited with where I’m trending,” Zalatoris said in Los Angeles. “No. 1 [goal] is always making sure that I’m peaking for the majors, and I think we’re pretty far ahead of schedule.”

As Zalatoris’ ballstriking returns and his putting improves (he ranked 15th in strokes gained: putting at Riviera), the tall task of competing, let alone winning, a major after a long time away from the game looms. Denton, for his part, is trying to avoid adding even more pressure to what already is a high-stakes setting.

“We’re not trying to overprepare for them,” Denton said. “We made that mistake last year and that was another kind of regret, just working too hard for it and that could have been what got his back a little worse.”

Even if the ultimate goal remains the same, there has been a shift in perspective. Having the sport taken away from him while also coming to terms with the reality of his situation, Zalatoris and his team have tried their best to remain in the moment. Nothing else is guaranteed.

“I think all of us would probably be like, if we could get 10 good years and do them smart, like he’d be pretty content with that, you know?” Denton said. Medical studies have shown that disc replacements last, conservatively, about 10 years.

Zalatoris & Co. don’t want to put limits on anything or look too far ahead. A week like Riviera was a necessary step forward, proof that Zalatoris could come back and compete again at a high level.

Now, after two weeks off, Zalatoris will try his hand at another signature event in Bay Hill, featuring all the top players in the world. Though the balancing act of competition and health will continue, perhaps for the rest of his career, those around him say Zalatoris is particularly well-equipped to handle whatever comes his way. Even if it involves more second-place finishes.

“His ability to look at things, analyze them and approach them in a way that he knows will make him better is exceptional,” Webster said. “He looked at his situation and never got frustrated and instead got what he needed out of time. His ability to focus and do that is why I know he’s going to compete to be the number one golfer in the world.”


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