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Zalatoris is making his first start since withdrawing from the BMW Championship in August.
For the first time in 138 days, Will Zalatoris will play a PGA Tour event this week at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Zalatoris, 26, hasn’t teed it up since withdrawing during the third round of the BMW Championship in August with what turned out to be two herniated discs in his back.
It was quite the scene at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club when Zalatoris was being worked on by a PGA Tour physiotherapist on the 5th tee before ultimately deciding the pain was too much. At the time, Zalatoris was leading the FedEx Cup after capturing his first PGA Tour win a week earlier in Memphis.
Now, he’s back, and at another big-time event. This week is a limited-field tournanment with only last year’s winners and Tour Championship qualifiers. It’s also the first of the PGA Tour’s new elevated events, with a $15 million purse. This is the first time Zalatoris has qualified for Kapalua.
“This is the best of the best,” Zalatoris said Tuesday ahead of the tournament. “I think I’ve just been so close so many times, so I think, if anything, after having the time off, it’s kind of hard to remind myself of all the second places.”
It figures Zalatoris struggled to reflect on his numerous close calls over the past three seasons. He didn’t exactly take it easy during his time off.
He got married in December but also spent much of the time rehabbing.
“I feel really good with everything,” Zalatoris said. “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.”
While Zalatoris isn’t the biggest guy on tour — he’s listed by the PGA Tour at 6-foot-2, 175 lbs — he said he’s still largely avoided back injuries throughout his career, save one instance in July 2021. That issue was muscular, not structural like the current one, so it kind of came out of the blue, he said.
“I did a pretty deep dive with Damon, my trainer, with Dr. [Greg] Rose, Dr. Duffy,” he said of his team. “I mean, we’ve looked at everything that I was doing to make sure I was doing the right things and we were checking all the boxes and it was just strictly a motor pattern thing, which is kind of a good thing and a bad thing, because when I was hitting the ball the way that I was, it’s hard to want to change anything, but at the same time, I actually saw some benefits.”
Zalatoris wanted to make swing changes to prevent an injury like this one from happening again. He actually learned the way he generated power could have led to the back issues in the first place.
“I spent some time with Dr. Greg Rose at [the Titleist Performance Institute],” he said. “We basically kind of went through a whole assessment of seeing where I’m at and it was really I think keeping longevity in mind as opposed to anything else. It’s hard when you’re the No. 1 player strokes gained tee to green this past year, or at least approach, to want to go in and say, hey, you need to make some changes.
“Whenever we maybe mention something that you maybe want to change, I think all of us kind of had some red flags go up. But I think the big thing for me is we spent a lot of time understanding the pressures of my golf swing and understanding how I push off my right side. And 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 on my spine’s tilted back, and so as Dr. Rose said, duh, no wonder I had a back issue.”
For the time being, Zalatoris said he’s using a 44.75-inch driver shaft, down an inch and a quarter from his former 46-inch gamer. But his speed has remained the same as it was from last year when he finished 13th in driving distance on Tour at 314.7 yards a pop.
The shorter driver allows him more time to bring a potential right miss back on line, he said. He’s also changed his setup to help fix some of his motor pattern issues that may have caused his injury.
“I basically am trying to get more, be a little bit more centered as opposed to having kind of ball forward with more spine tilt at address,” he said. “So I’m trying to get more centered over it and work more around my right side, so more of a turn as opposed to kind of a lateral shift, because like I said, 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.
“It was actually nice because I was able to bring the ball flight down, which, I mean, I know living in Texas you’re used to hitting the ball low, but it’s doing it by itself as opposed to having to manipulate it. So it was actually kind of a nice fix.”
And after all of those adjustments, Zalatoris and his teams’ fears of making changes to a swing that has already racked up six major top-10s in three years were unwarranted.
“I’m more efficient in my golf swing,” he said. “So that’s why my speed is the same actually with the shorter driver. It’s just because of the efficiency now of how I push into a golf ball.”
Jack Hirsh is an assistant editor at GOLF. A Pennsylvania native, Jack is 2020 graduate of Penn State University, earning degrees in broadcast journalism and political science. He was captain of his high school golf team and still *tries* to remain competitive in local amateurs. Before joining GOLF, Jack spent two years working at a TV station in Bend, Oregon, primarily as Multimedia Journalist/reporter, but also producing, anchoring and even presenting the weather. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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