As Will Zalatoris navigated the Nicklaus Tournament Course on Friday at PGA West, a familiar line played on repeat in his head. It was from one of his instructors, Josh Gregory: If you want to shoot 64, you got to be willing to shoot 74.
Zalatoris heeded that advice and then some: He shot 61.
“You got to go take chances,” said Zalatoris, whose 11-under round, which tied a career-best, rocketed him into a share of third at 12 under, two shots back of The American Express leader Patrick Cantlay. “If you’re going to go fire and be aggressive on par-5s, you got to be willing to, like I did today, hit one in the water.”
The rinsed second shot at the par-5 15th hole, Zalatoris’ sixth hole of the day, was the lone blemish in an otherwise masterful round by the 25-year-old Texan, who carded 12 birdies, including seven in a row to finish. The final birdie of that scintillating run came on the par-4 ninth, where Zalatoris had his right foot slip while trying to hit a hard cut off the tee and instead blocked his shot into an adjacent fairway. He rebounded nicely, hitting 6-iron from 212 yards to 15 feet and lipping in the putt.
“Kind of the icing on the cake,” Zalatoris said with a smile.
All that after a day with no cake and few smiles. In Thursday’s opening round, Zalatoris had netted just a pair of birdies at La Quinta Country Club, one of the easiest courses each season on the PGA Tour, and he was understandably kicking himself.
“I was frustrated with my attitude yesterday,” Zalatoris said. “I thought that I was trying to shoot a number on a golf course that I knew I could eat up with my distance, and shooting 1 under with two birdies was pretty disappointing. I hit bad drives on all the par-5s, and I hit 10 greens yesterday on a 7,000-yard golf course, and with my distance, I mean, I never do that.”
Zalatoris chalked up his first round of the new year to “mental rust,” and playing either too tight or too defensively. Not that he had much momentum carrying over, either.
In 17 worldwide starts after finishing second at the Masters last April, Zalatoris posted just two top-10s – albeit good ones, T-8’s at the PGA Championship and WGC-FedEx St. Jude – and missed five cuts, including a withdrawal at The Open with a lower-back injury.
Full-field scores from The American Express
“The attitude that I had yesterday was a little bit of the attitude I carried over the last three months of the season where I was really forcing things and trying to do things when in reality the first six months of last year I was just playing golf and it added up to some great golf,” Zalatoris said. “I think just trying to shoot numbers every single day, trying to force birdies in there when in reality I didn’t have to. The other part, too, is that I’ve been wanting to win so bad that, if anything, I was making mistakes on Thursday, Friday of trying not to make mistakes and then making mistakes because I was doing that.”
Case in point: Zalatoris drew back to Thursday when he faced a tucked left pin on La Quinta’s par-3 12th hole. With the wind blowing 10 mph off the left and not totally comfortable with the yardage, Zalatoris played it too safe and found the right bunker. He then splashed out to 8 feet, missed the putt and walked away with a frustrating bogey.
“The reality is if I went after that flag and I pulled it in the left bunker, I was making ‘4’ anyway,” he explained, “so you might as well give yourself a chance at it.”
In recent months, Zalatoris has leaned on Gregory and his sports psychologist, Dr. Michael Lardon, to help Zalatoris regain the form that got him to No. 27 in the world rankings – he’s now No. 37. Gregory has told Zalatoris to take more chances and be more aggressive, especially at birdie-fest events like The AmEx. Lardon has stressed the importance of playing with “house money,” which is what Zalatoris did the first half of last season after earning special temporary membership and then locking up his card but still not being eligible for the FedExCup Playoffs.
“After Augusta, I thought my expectations and my mindset changed a little bit,” Zalatoris continued. “Like I said, that was really where I was trying to win tournaments, I was working honestly too hard, worked myself all the way into an injury, and I knew that that was kind of where I needed to take a step back. So, I thought that really the first six months was incredible, it was, I learned a lot from it playing that well and being in contention, but the last six months I really gained a lot more out of it of just not forcing it and shooting rounds.”
Zalatoris, who missed just two greens and needed only 24 putts on Friday, now has a pair of 61s in his last 13 official Tour rounds. So, even though he also owns two MCs and a T-54 during that same span, he remains focused on the positive.
“It’s there,” he said, “I just need to keep this attitude going in the future.”
Remain unafraid of shooting 74 and Zalatoris just may find himself lifting his first Tour trophy on Sunday.