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Emotional Will Zalatoris reveals death of family member earlier in week

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Will Zalatoris received a standing ovation on the final green Sunday at Riviera, an emphatic appreciation for his grueling road back to the PGA Tour after surgery.

But 10 minutes later, Zalatoris was perfectly silent, blinking away tears, finally letting go of the emotion he’d kept hidden from the cameras over the past three days.

Zalatoris revealed Sunday afternoon that he had unexpectedly lost a close family member three days earlier, after the opening round of the Genesis Invitational.

His pain was still evident.

“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.”

It’s among the reasons why this runner-up finish was so meaningful to him.

“Just shows you life is short and appreciate the moments,” he said, “and just how lucky I am to be out here.”

Even prior to Sunday, it’s been an emotional journey to this point.

After his breakout victory at the 2022 FedEx St. Jude Championship that vaulted him to No. 7 in the world, Zalatoris suffered a fluky back injury and was forced to shut it down for the rest of the year. When he returned at the start of 2023, it was clear that he still wasn’t fully healthy. Doctors recommended that he undergo a microdiscectomy – a terrifying proposition for a rising star who was still just 25.

Ruled out for the remainder of the year, Zalatoris completed his psychology degree at Wake Forest and, once he was cleared to travel, ticked off a couple of bucket-list items with his wife, including a trip to Wimbledon.

Golf was never far from his mind. While on the sidelines – and inspired by Lucas Glover’s torrid summer run – Zalatoris started looking into the prospect of switching to the broomstick putter. Once cleared to start hitting balls, his long game needed a few adjustments post-surgery, too. Tweaking the hallmark of his game, he stood closer at address, moved the ball farther forward in his stance and swung more rotationally to take away some of the torque on his ailing back. With help from his trainers, he developed a strict recovery regimen to follow.

But those were the physical adjustments.

His mental battle proved just as important.

“I know there were some dark places of wondering: First of all, can I even play golf again? And second of all, am I ever going to be that player again?” said Zalatoris’ performance coach, Josh Gregory.

Zalatoris’ long-awaited return to competition didn’t allay his concerns: He opened with 81, added a 79 in the third round and finished last in the star-studded 20-man field by nine. There was a belief in his camp that they should look at the big picture, to think of his health first and golf second. The initial plan was to play one week, then take two or three weeks off to recover, and then try again. But less than two months into the season, that plan has been torn up: Zalatoris feels so good, so healthy, that the Genesis was already his fourth start of the year.

“I’m definitely ahead of the curve in terms of the speed, where my game’s at,” he said.

At one of the Tour’s most exacting venues, Zalatoris ranked third in the field in strokes gained: tee to green and 15th on the greens with his new long putter. His title chances at Riviera were doomed once his tee shot on 15 found the cavernous fairway bunker, and he bemoaned how many putts he missed low because of poor reads.

Considering his long road back, and his family tragedy this week, it was easily overlooked.

“Look at what the guy has come back from,” Gregory said. “One major injury. One surgery. Wondering will I ever be able to play golf again. Now to lose a family member. And he can say, Look at where I am. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m playing golf. I feel like I’m about to be one of the best in the world again. Maybe in a weird way, it added to the peace that he’s been experiencing over the past couple months.”

Competitively, at least, Zalatoris should have a newfound freedom. Having fallen outside the top 30 in the world, he needed a sponsor exemption into the third signature event of the season. But this performance (and the boatload of FedExCup points that come with it) should be enough for him to secure a spot in three weeks at Bay Hill, plus The Players Championship the following week. He’s likely to withdraw from next week’s event in Mexico (note: Zalatoris officially withdrew late Sunday); his immediate schedule just improved dramatically.

Zalatoris joked that he already has plenty of silver in his house from his five runner-up finishes on Tour. But this one, at this time, will undoubtedly hit different.

“More importantly,” Gregory said, “I think it just shows him, I’ve got this in me. Just a nice validation that he knew he was close, but he needed to see it.

“As I told him: He won, he just didn’t get the trophy this week. He won his own personal battle.”