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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Will Zalatoris’ summer keeps getting better. Having already won the Texas State Amateur, the Trans-Miss Championship and U.S. Junior Amateur, Zalatoris knocked off an injured Jordan Niebrugge, 2 and 1, in the Round of 64 at the 114th U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club.
“I’m the No. 7 seed and I’m playing a Walker Cupper,” Zalatoris said. “But the part that I love is the pressure. I thrive on it.”
Zalatoris, 17, who is from Plano, Texas, jumped out to an early lead winning the second hole with a par and the third with an 18-foot birdie putt. Meanwhile, Niebrugge struggled to four bogeys in a row beginning at the second and didn’t make a birdie until the 13th hole.
“I was fortunate to be only 3 down after nine holes,” he said.
Niebrugge, 21, wouldn’t blame his subpar play on his injured right wrist, but it clearly was a factor. He strained it on Aug. 5 while doing routine conditioning exercises, he said, and felt pain shoot through his elbow. An X-ray revealed that nothing was broken. He received a shot the next day and wrapped the wrist when he played in the championship. He said his short game carried him into match play, but against Zalatoris, he regularly flinched at impact and winced after shots.
“I didn’t feel like I could get through the ball at all,” Niebrugge said while icing his wrist at the first-aid station after the match.
The most obvious sign was at the ninth hole when he tugged a wedge from 120 yards and shortsided himself in the greenside bunker. At the 11th, Niebrugge’s father suggested he quit if he couldn’t make a clean strike, but doing so wasn’t in the Oklahoma State golfer’s nature. Even after Zalatoris sank a 15-foot birdie putt at 12 to go 4 up, Niebrugge battled back. He cut the deficit in half and could’ve pulled closer if Zalatoris missed an 8-foot par putt on 15. “I was leaking oil,” Zalatoris conceded.
But the incoming freshman at Wake Forest University on an Arnold Palmer golf scholarship delved into his memory bank of shots.
“When I won the Texas State Amateur I made a 6-footer that broke a foot and it was a huge saver,” Zalatoris said. “I thought about that before I made this one and then my caddie said, ‘You now have the next best putt of your life.’ It was a very good feeling.”
The putter has behaved ever since he switched from a conventional to claw grip on June 1 at the suggestion of his short-game coach, Cameron McCormick.
“It was just an absolute click where immediately I knew that this is going to be a great year,” Zalatoris said.
He sealed the victory with two solid two putts on the 16th and 17th green to advance to the round of 32 against Spain’s Mario Galiano.
Zalatoris has played a lot of golf during his winning stretch and that’s just fine with him.
“I’m 17,” he said. “I told myself I was going to take four or five days off (after winning the U.S. Junior on July 26), and after the third day I couldn’t take it any longer. I got back out and started working on the short game.”
This summer, all that hard work is paying off.