Zalatoris tops Riley for U.S. Junior Amateur title
THE WOODLANDS, Texas –– Will Zalatoris qualified for his first U.S. Junior Amateur when he was 12 years old.
Just barely over 5 feet tall and hardly tipping 100 pounds on the scale, Zalatoris opened with a 1-under 71 at the 2009 U.S. Junior at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J. One of his playing competitors that day, former top-ranked amateur Patrick Cantlay, shot 73.
“To show you how dumb and naive I was, I had no idea who he was,” said Zalatoris, who then carded a second-round 87 to miss the match-play cut.
Five years later, and in his fifth and final U.S. Junior appearance, Will Zalatoris will now forever be known as the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion.
“This is the one I've always wanted to win,” said Zalatoris, who defeated Davis Riley, 5 and 3, in Saturday’s scheduled 36-hole final at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course.
“You know, making it when I was 12, it was a big deal and just (having) that feeling of satisfaction of just making it. And then five years later, now I'm winning it. I really just can't put it into words.”
Zalatoris clinched victory at the par-4 15th hole after being conceded a short par putt. But it was his approach shot at the previous hole that really sealed the deal.
Facing 119 yards to a tough hole location, Zalatoris pulled out a 56-degree wedge at the par-4 14th hole.
“If I miss that thing left, that's 20 yards off (the green),” said Zalatoris, who then hit what he called a “three-quarter ripper, where I just take a little bit off of it and put a lot of spin on it.”
The ball came out beautifully, took one hop and landed in the cup.
“That's the shot I'll never forget,” said Zalatoris, who also had 12 birdies in 33 holes Saturday.
Zalatoris birdied seven times in the first 18 holes alone, but it was the final go around Carlton Woods where he really shined.
He birdied his first two holes of the afternoon, sinking a 10-footer at the par-4 first and draining a 20-footer from just off the front of the green at the par-4 second.
Zalatoris switched to the claw grip earlier this year and credited his short-game work with instructor Cameron McCormick for his success on and around the greens.
“I went to Hawaii with my family as a graduation present and for seven rounds I shot 34 under with two course records,” Zalatoris said. “So I figured, well, I'm going to keep this.”
He did run into some trouble, though, hitting his tee ball in the water at the par-3 third hole and conceding birdie to Riley, who was credited with nine birdies of his own.
“I put myself in position to go win it,” said Riley, who is now the only player to have lost in consecutive U.S. Junior finals, ”and Will just played really well.”
Zalatoris, who didn’t make a bogey from the fourth hole on in the afternoon, hit the flagstick at the fourth and fifth holes, and took a 3-up lead with birdie at the par-5 eighth. He would surrender a hole to Riley at the 11th, but got it right back with a two-putt par from 6 feet at the par-3 12th.
“That round today, on that golf course, under that type of pressure, that's the best round of my life,” said a kid who shot 59 earlier this year at The Lakes at Castle Hills in Lewisville, Texas.
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It’s been quite the run for Zalatoris as of late. He captured the Texas Amateur in June at Brooks Hollow Golf Club in Dallas, and then won the Trans-Mississippi Championship earlier this month at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.
He’ll now try to become the first player since Kelly Kraft in 2005 to win the Texas Amateur, Trans-Miss and the U.S. Amateur in the same year next month at Atlanta Athletic Club.
“You know, after the U.S. Am, I'll really look back and reflect on this summer,” Zalatoris said. “Even if I don’t make match play, it doesn't matter. I'll have had a summer of a lifetime so far.”
Zalatoris had four times before made match play at this championship, never advancing past the Round of 16. Yet, the 17-year-old from Plano, Texas, never felt overwhelmed.
He showcased the confidence and patience of a champion, something instilled in him by his caddie and mentor, Scott Fawcett, a former Web.com Tour player.
“Three years ago, I promised him he was going to win this tournament,” said Fawcett, who plays out of the same home club as Zalatoris, Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas. “He just needed to learn how to manage his big game. . . . I told him he’s like a Ferrari, and Ferraris wipe out going into the turns. It’s what they do, until you learn how to drive them.
“He just needed someone to grab him by the ears and say you’re going to win tournaments.”
Said Zalatoris of Fawcett: “He really has showed me how to play golf.”
Fawcett was originally supposed to play in the Texas Amateur, but asked Zalatoris if he could loop for him instead. Entering the tournament, Fawcett predicted he would win it. Zalatoris did. Coming into this week, Fawcett made the same prediction.
“When someone believes in you like that,” Zalatoris said, “you believe in yourself.”
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Zalatoris is now the sixth different Texan to win the U.S. Junior since 1999, when Hunter Mahan hoisted the trophy. He is also the second straight with Scottie Scheffler having won it last year.
While failing in his previous four attempts, he admitted it was nice to finally break through in his home state in front of a gallery of about 200 people, many of them family and friends.
“My dad’s college fraternity brother caught a flight from St. Louis last night,” Zalatoris said.
Also in the gallery was David Price, Zalatoris’ coach of eight years. Zalatoris got choked up talking about his teacher, who had never seen his star pupil play in a competitive tournament until Saturday.
“The one that really means the most to me,” Zalatoris said.
Said Price: “I knew pretty early on he was going to be really, really talented. At 12 years old he was shooting 65s and 66s. That set the stage for what was getting ready to come.”
But not even Zalatoris, who will play at Wake Forest this fall, could quite imagine a moment like the one he experience Saturday.
“This one, it touches my heart, to be honest with you,” said Zalatoris, who joins a list of champions that includes major winners Tiger Woods, Johnny Miller and David Duval. “You know, just spinning this (trophy) around and looking at the names, it's amazing.”
Now, it’s time to scratch Zalatoris’ name into that trophy and remember what an incredible week it was for the young Texan.