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With support from Tiger Woods, Will Zalatoris returns to Masters a year after surgery

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Will Zalatoris’ mom sent him a text Monday morning to remind him how far he’s come over the past 12 months.

It was the one-year anniversary of when he underwent back surgery.

Another reminder came just a few hours later, when Zalatoris linked up with Tiger Woods to play the second nine at Augusta National.

Over the past several months they’ve been swapping war stories about the microdiscectomy procedures and their different recoveries. It’s been comforting to Zalatoris not just to know that he’s not alone, but to understand the value of patience and his own process.

“It’s always special to be here,” he said, “but obviously given the last year that I’ve had this was a very special day.”

Zalatoris was warming up on the Masters tournament practice area last year when his back went out. He’d already been plagued by the issue for months – he initially suffered the injury the week after he won his first Tour event – and resisted the idea of undergoing surgery. But this time, he knew immediately this was different. More serious. Shooting pain went down his legs.

Zalatoris flew back home to Dallas, underwent an MRI the next day and then – on April 8, 2022 – had the surgery to remove the herniated disc fragments that were pushing on the nerves in his spine.

So began the long road to recovery, and Woods, who underwent the same procedure in the mid-2010s, was there to help.

“It was more, Hey, how you feeling? You feel this? You feel that? The patience game is really hard,” Zalatoris said. “Obviously, he had gone through way more than what I had gone through. Having the same surgeons, the same team, just having the same conversations.”

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Zalatoris said he caught up in person with Woods at his charity event last fall, when Zalatoris was just progressing to hitting iron shots.

“I talked to him a little bit about my golf swing,” Zalatoris said. “At the time I was still having some residuals, but really after about seven months is when I felt literally 100%. It’s just been a lot of understanding the process and realizing that even if a doctor tells you 12 weeks – and we’re trying to win and compete at the highest level – it’s technically longer. …

“Having the exact same injury, it’s funny because it’s not so much the questions that I’ve asked and him giving the answers, it’s been more the thought-provoking questions that he’s given to me that has really been the stuff that’s got me back to where I am now.”

And so here Zalatoris is now, a year after surgery, feeling as good as he ever has.

He has already been in serious contention once, a few months ago at Riviera, and is learning more about what his body can handle, the subtle changes in his full swing to take strain off his back, and how best to wield his new broomstick putter.

Even with the painful memories of a year ago, he has proven in his short career that he is a strong fit for Augusta National, with a pair of top-6 finishes already (including a runner-up in 2021). But on Monday, he watched with great interest how Woods, the five-time Masters champion, navigated the second nine. He was amazed, after all of his surgeries and setbacks, that Woods looked as good as he does, and still had enough firepower to outdrive him.

Though he picked up a few new tips and tricks – “I’m not willing to share them,” he said with a wry smile – Zalatoris mostly walked the grounds with a new sense of gratitude and appreciation.

“I think the best way to put it is I kept thinking I was at 100% as I’ve come back, and each month I’ve picked up a little more speed, had a little more endurance,” he said. “In reality, I kept thinking that I was kind of what was going to be my 100%, and I think that’s part of the patience game. I got to the point where I feel like I can push harder in the gym and practice, but you just have to be patient. I’m still only 27. I have a long career ahead of me and need to look at the long term rather than the short term.”