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Learned of family tragedy after opening round

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Will Zalatoris took a moment to compose himself.

He’d been asked about his emotions, and the question landed heavier than anyone could have expected.

“I didn’t say anything all week,” Zalatoris said, “but I – sorry.”

The tears welled up, the silence expanding. Zalatoris had shot a final-round 69 to tie for second, three behind winner Hideki Matsuyama, at The Genesis Invitational at The Riviera Country Club.

The runner-up finish was a long time coming, his best result since coming back from career-threatening back surgery last year. He hadn’t been healthy since capturing his first PGA TOUR title at the FedEx St. Jude Championship in August 2022, and it had been a long, sometimes excruciating road back.

“I lost a family member on Thursday,” Zalatoris said, “and she was – so she was with me all week. You know, was pretty special on Friday to make the hole-in-one after – sorry. Pretty special to make the hole-in-one on Friday after I found out on Thursday. She was with me all week.”

The loss was unexpected, he added, and his family was gathered in the Northwest. He anticipated he, too, would soon be headed that direction to join them.

“This whole week was for her,” he said. “My family can’t be here no matter what would have happened, but very proud of how I played. Just shows you life’s short and appreciate the moments, how lucky I am to be out here.”

As it turned out, the story of Will Zalatoris at The Genesis Invitational was one of perspective as well as perseverance.

He first hurt his back fishing his ball out of the hole at the 2022 BMW Championship. He had just won his first TOUR title in Memphis less than a week earlier, but now had to bow out of the rest of the FedExCup Playoffs. He missed the Presidents Cup.

He got going again as the calendar flipped to 2023, but in retrospect that was a mistake.

“When he first tried to come back,” said his coach, Josh Gregory, “he thought he had to come back and quickly get back to one of the best players in the world.”

There were some good results, most notably a solo fourth at the 2023 Genesis Invitational, but his back still wasn’t right. He finished T59 at the 2023 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and although he had hoped to play the Masters, he withdrew and underwent a microdiscectomy on the Saturday of the third round.

Over his long layoff – “I found the end of Netflix,” he said – he resolved to stay busy. He went back to school to get his degree in psychology and took a few bucket-list trips with his wife, Caitlin, including a sojourn to Wimbledon.

He also learned his lesson, not only refusing to come back too soon, but also modifying his swing to take pressure off his back. He moved his ball position forward, learning a slightly new swing, and figured out how to use a broomstick putter. He returned at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, where he finished last by nine shots.

“That was kind of an R&D week,” he said with a chuckle.

Added Gregory, “Look what the guy’s come back from. One major injury, one major surgery, wondering, ‘Hey, am I ever going to play golf again?’ And then to lose a family member.”

In his second return, this time from the same surgery Tiger Woods made famous – and with the same doctor who operated on Woods – Zalatoris resolved to put his health first. He could have come back in six months; he took eight before rejoining his colleagues on TOUR at the Hero, then went back to Dallas to regroup.

Zalatoris missed the cut at the season-opening Sony Open in Hawaii, but soon he and his coach began seeing glimpses of the player who was consistently contending in majors when he got hurt. He finished T34 at The American Express and T13 at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Now he has a co-runner-up finish at The Genesis Invitational, where he was playing as a sponsor exemption. The result solidifies his status and will ensure he’s a part of other elite fields like THE PLAYERS Championship.

Had anyone predicted Zalatoris would be in the hunt to win at Riviera so quickly after coming back, and so quickly after the comedy of errors at the Hero, Gregory said, “I would have said you were crazy.”

That it happened here was perhaps fitting. Zalatoris made his first career TOUR start at the 2015 Genesis Invitational (MC) after winning The Genesis Invitational Collegiate Showcase as a freshman at Wake Forest. He was one of three past winners in the Genesis field – Scottie Scheffler (2018) and Sahith Theegala (2017) were the others.

The positive juju may have been at work Friday as Zalatoris, using a 7-iron, aced the 184-yard 14th hole in the second round, winning himself a Genesis GV80 and his caddie, Joel Stock, a Genesis Electrified GV70.

As for the runner-up finish two days later, it was the fifth of Zalatoris’ PGA TOUR career, and he tipped his hat to Matsuyama, to whom he also finished second at the 2021 Masters. As Gregory pointed out, though, this was not a loss but a win. Zalatoris was playing well again and putting better than ever with the broomstick. He even confided to his coach after the final round that he felt good enough to play again Monday.

Instead, he’ll be with family as they grieve, but it won’t be long before we see him again in Florida. He’ll have plenty to build on after a week that was by turns heartbreaking and reaffirming.