“Kind of a golfer’s worse nightmare is feeling your back giving out on the driving range at Augusta 30 minutes before your tee time.”

That was the disaster that befell Will Zalatoris prior to his opening round in the 2023 Masters. The back problems that had plagued him for a number of years and cut short his 2022 season just days after he claimed his first PGA Tour title, came back with a vengeance as he prepared for the opening round of the year’s first major at Augusta National Golf Club. Two days later, he underwent surgery, a microdiscectomy that cost him the rest of the official 2023 season.

Now fully recovered, much wiser and in good spirits, Zalatoris will find out if his patience and perseverance have paid off when he tees it up at this week’s Hero World Challenge at Albany. The 27-year-old Texan makes his debut in the 20-man, $4.5 million event, hoping it’s the first steppingstone to resuming a career that had shown so much promise in such a short time.

“I had a goal of playing this fall, but it was just too soon in my opinion of where I was at,” said Zalatoris, who considered coming back at the RSM Classic and was glad he didn’t because of the inclement weather. “Playing 72 holes, having everybody here, playing obviously against the best players in the world, even though this week is an unofficial event, it’s still really good for me to get 72 holes and kind of see where I’m at.”

And maybe see where he might be headed, too. Obviously, he’d like to regain the form that elevated him to seventh in the world and enabled him to finish second in three majors in short order, including T-2 in his Masters debut in 2021.

So, yeah, having to leave Augusta early and missing the remainder of the season was a huge blow, especially on the mental side.

“The first five, six weeks were probably the hardest,” said Zalatoris, who was told early on that the recovery period after surgery is hardest from the mental side. “I would say the toughest part early on was having no timeline.”

Fortunately, he received plenty of good advice, none more important than to be patient. Among those who gave him counsel was none other than Hero World Challenge host Tiger Woods, who has undergone multiple back surgeries performed by the same doctor. Zalatoris had a conversation with Woods in September at the Nexus Cup, an amateur team event in New York, and the Hall of Famer provided Zalatoris some valuable insights.

“He really asked me more questions than really … than I was able to. It was also the questions that he asked were really kind of thought provoking,” Zalatoris said. “So now, as opposed to just looking at videos down the line and face on, I’m looking at videos from my rear side and seeing how my back’s doing and seeing how I’m moving.”

Woods also advised Zalatoris not to change “who I am as a golfer and my golf swing, but just refining things to where they’re a little bit more simple.”

With his coach Troy Denton, Zalatoris has done just that, remaining more vertical in his swing and eliminating the reverse-C finish he always had. He also keeps his left heel on the ground throughout the downswing, which lessens stress on his back. What he has discovered is that he can still generate enough power but is more accurate with his driver.

“The part I’ve kind of enjoyed about it is I’m driving it straighter, even though it might be 10 yards shorter,” Zalatoris said. “I think my best year on tour I was 150th in fairways hit, so anything [would be] better on that end by far.”

Zalatoris said he has thrown 2023 “in the bag,” meaning he has moved on, but he can’t say it was a wasted year. He took a few online college courses to complete his degree in psychology from Wake Forest, and he has learned a lot more about himself. “I feel like I know myself better physically, know myself better mentally. I think there’s going to be a lot of positives that are going to come from this time off,” he said. “It’s not like I just sat around and didn’t even watch golf or think about golf. I was watching guys every day, seeing how some of my buddies were playing. So my mind was always there, but when you’re not able to have a club in your hand.

Zalatoris, now 33rd in the world, has been encouraged by his play at home—he shot successive rounds of 63-65-64 at Brook Hollow in Dallas—but now comes a real test. He isn’t sure what to expect. But he knows what he wants to get out of it. He said he is on a mission to get better. This is the start of the process before he makes his official return at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

“I think this week is a lot of almost kind of R&D, with let’s see how I feel going into the last round physically. This week I’m going to be able to take a lot away from it, regardless of how I play,” he said. “The little things, kind of like the feels of playing a round and playing through wind and playing through different conditions, there will be a build up to it. I don’t have a certain score or place or whatever. It’s more of if I put 72 holes together pain free and we’re able to take away a lot of things of what I can work on over the next month before I start up for the next year, you know, either way it’s a positive.”

Image: Patrick Smith